The study published in today's issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity reveals how the human brain can be duped when it comes to taste perception.
"The brain can be rewired in anticipation of sensory input to respond in prescribed ways," said scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
According to the researchers, this response is similar to the psychological process of patients feeling less pain after taking simple sugar pills believed to be medication.
Dr Jack Nitscke and his team exposed 43 subjects to bitter, neutral and sweet tastes while they were undergoing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Each taste was linked to a 'minus', 'zero' or 'plus' sign, which flashed through fiber optic goggles to subjects moments before the different tastes were administered. However, these signs did not always correspond to the taste they were said to presage.
"When the subject sees the warning signal, portions of the brain activated by the misleading cue predict the decreased brain response to the awful taste," said Nitschke, adding that "the (brain's) response to the misleading cue will predict the subject's perception of what the taste is going to be. The subject anticipates that the taste won't be that bad, and indeed that's what they report."
The findings will primarily be used to examine the way in which the power of anticipation can help in the treatment of certain psychological conditions.
But, according to Nitschke, the study also provides scientific backing for the marketing methods used by food manufacturers.
"The food industry is already taking advantage of this 'power of expectancy.' By marketing a product to look really appealing, it often appears as such to consumers, perhaps more than it actually might be," he told FoodNavigator-USA.
However, although the findings provide scientific confirmation for certain successful marketing techniques, consumer behavior and product performance continue to demonstrate that a successful taste formulation remains the stronger selling point.