The effect of labels on coffee taste
What makes coffee taste good for you?
I like my coffee a little stronger, full of cream, and with a little too much sugar. After re-reading the last sentence, apparently, it’s the additives that make a good cup of coffee good for me.
A new study suggests that a label attached to a coffee can also make it taste good.
The Coffee Taste Experiment
In the study,1 people taste tested two cups of coffee, one of which was labelled “eco-friendly” and the other “not eco-friendly.” It’s important to highlight that this isn’t a blind taste test. All the taste-testers knew ahead of making their ratings which coffee was supposed to be which. In reality, both coffees came from the same pot; they were chemically identical.
In the first experiment, the green people (concerned with sustainability, recycling, etc.) thought the coffee labelled “eco-friendly” tasted better than the one labelled “not eco-friendly.” People less concerned with sustainability had no preference for one label over the other.
In a subsequent experiment, the results generalized. The sustainability and non-sustainability groups both preferred the taste of the so-called “eco-friendly” over the “not eco-friendly” coffee. However, there was another measurement that the experimenters added. People answered whether they generally prefer the taste of “eco-labelled” products or non-labelled alternatives. The people who had a more positive attitude towards the taste of “eco-labelled” products better liked the taste of “eco-friendly” over the “not eco-friendly” coffee despite being identical.
Based on the just-described results, the authors believe that the taste of “eco-friendly” coffee improved for people whom the eco label represents something great in terms of the environment or taste.
Now take a sip of your coffee and digest these results. Did the perceptual taste of coffee improve with just an eco label? The effect of cognition on perception is not new. Labels, information, and expectations have been shown to affect taste at the perceptual level in other experiments. Is this really the case for coffee?
Let’s pause (again). Maybe there isn’t a sensory improvement of the taste? Maybe people like the prestige, righteousness, or “in” feeling that comes with saying they prefer eco-coffee? To test this, there needs to be a listening, seeing audience to appreciate one’s superiority!
To rule out this explanation, the researchers had participants do their taste ratings anonymously (no audience!) or tell an experimenter directly (an audience!). If people like to be seen as prestigious, righteous, or “in,” we would expect those telling their ratings to the experimenter to better like “eco-friendly” coffee than the ones making anonymous ratings. This didn’t happen. Both groups, with or without an audience, equally preferred the coffee labelled “eco-friendly” versus “not eco-friendly” despite there being no difference between the two. These results suggest people weren’t just pretending the “eco-friendly” compared to “not eco-friendly” coffee tasted better.
We’re back to the argument that an eco-friendly label actually changes the taste of coffee for people whom the eco label represents something positive. The study cannot speak to whether it’s the positive attitudes toward “eco-friendly” products or a preference for the taste of “eco-friendly” products that affected coffee taste.
According to the authors, one way that attitudes toward “eco-friendly” products could affect taste is that people focus on the production differences between eco-friendly and conventional coffees. At the back of people mind’s who have positive attitude towards sustainability is that conventional coffee is sprayed with chemicals. These chemicals seep into the coffee affecting taste, affecting health.
This is conjecture but gives a solid example of how thinking could lead to taste.
Something I Didn’t Tell You
This is something that will not surprise you. People, in this study, were willing to pay more for “eco-friendly” coffee. Do you think that the eco industry knows this?
1 Söqvist, P., Hedblom, D., Holmgrem, D., Haga1, A., Langeborg, L., Nöstl, A., & Kågström, J. (2015). Who needs cream and sugar when there is eco-labeling? Taste and willingness to pay for “eco-friendly” coffee. PLOS One, 8, 1-9.