Victory Can Make Lackluster Foods Taste Better

July 10, 2015 Updated: July 12, 2015

New research with hockey fans reveals how our emotional state can affect our perception of taste: winning made less-appealing food taste better, but losing made it seem even worse.

“We determined how emotions arising from the outcome of college hockey games influenced the perception of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (savory) taste, … in addition to hedonic (liking and disliking) responses to real foods,” says Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science in the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Corinna Noel, a food science doctoral student, and Dando examined everyday variations of taste function and intensity ratings, and evaluated “hedonic” responses to food from approximately 550 rabid Cornell men’s hockey fans, whose spirits rise with the joy of wins and sink with miserable losses.

“Emotional manipulations in the form of pleasantly or unpleasantly perceived real-life events can influence the perception of taste, driving hedonics for less acceptable foods,” says Dando. “These results imply that such modulation of taste perception could promote emotional eating.”

At the end of each home game, the fans were given a salted-caramel pretzel ice cream and a lemon-lime sorbet. Generally, the fans liked salted-caramel ice cream much better than the sorbet, but when the home team won, the sorbet enjoyed higher hedonic ratings. In other words, when the home team won, fans enjoyed the less-favored food as well.

“Sweet displayed a positive association with the fan’s satisfaction with the result,” says Dando, but the flavors salty, umami, and bitter were not affected by wins or losses. Interestingly, sour taste showed the opposite: When fans were unhappy with the result, sour flavors tasted more sour.

The study shows that emotions experienced in everyday life can alter the hedonic experience of less-palatable food, implying a link to emotional eating, according to the researchers.

“In times of negative affect, foods of a less pleasurable nature become even more unappealing to taste, as more hedonically pleasing foods remain pleasurable,” Dando explains. 

“Thus, in a state of negative emotion, we are more likely to eat hedonically pleasing—and thus likely unhealthy—foods,” he says. “This is why when the team wins, we’re okay with our regular routine foods, but when they lose, we’ll be reaching for the ice cream.”