Boyka Bratanova, Christin-Melanie Vauclair, Nicolas Kervyn, et al., “Savouring Morality. Moral Satisfaction Renders Food of Ethical Origin Subjectively Tastier.” Appetite 91(1): 137-149, August 2015 [pdf here].
• The taste of food isn’t just about the chemical and physical properties of the food; rather, it also depends on the environment in which the food is consumed and the expectations of the consumer: Zinberg’s Drug, Set, and Setting applies to food, too.
• It is the connection between consumer expectations and taste that is at the heart of the analysis in this article. Taste expectations might be enhanced if you are supportive of the perceived underlying ethics of the food; for example, if the food carries a Fair Trade certification, you might expect it to taste better – and therefore it might actually taste better to you. Further, this mechanism can also augment your willingness-to-pay for the food, and bolster your intention to purchase the food in the future. The ethical origin creates a sort of halo effect whereby other dimensions of the food are perceived more favorably.
• The first study involves a 2005 survey of some 4000 adult grocery shoppers spread throughout eight European nations; the relevant questions concern tomato sauce. First, beliefs about the environmental benefits of organic tomato sauce (relative to conventional, non-organic sauce) are gauged; then, whether buying organic is viewed as doing the right thing, or making the consumer a better person.
• In the survey – which was not accompanied by actually tasting any food – beliefs about environmental benefits were positively correlated with beliefs about better taste; the beliefs about better taste increased future buying intentions.
• Follow-up experiments added some actual tasting of food into the mix. Besides environmental benefits, beliefs about fair trade and local sourcing also were examined.
• A biscuit (cookie) company was described as either environmentally friendly or unfriendly, in two treatments applied to a total of 112 undergraduate students. Students thought that the environmentally friendly company would produce a higher quality biscuit (though whether the perceived quality difference is due to the halo effect of being environmentally friendly, or to the alternative biscuit being produced by an environmentally unfriendly company, is unclear). Upon eating the biscuits, however, the reported actual taste of the two types of biscuits did not differ in a statistically significant way.
• The final experiment looked at fair trade chocolate and locally produced apple juice, in comparison with conventional products (that is, not as opposed to environmentally unfriendly products). One hypothesis is that people who endorse altruistic values will find the fair-trade chocolate to be taste-enhanced, while people who endorse environmental values will like the taste of the local apple juice. The data from 50 undergraduates tends to support the fair-trade hypothesis, but for the apple juice, taste experience and willingness-to-pay are reduced for the locally sourced juice. Nonetheless, if we look only at that subset of the participants who endorse environmental values, the better taste and higher willingness-to-pay results are restored.