A new study finds that the color of the vending cup used to serve hot chocolate can alter its taste and smell, with orange or cream colored cups enhancing flavor and aroma more than white or red ones.

Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, of the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain, and her colleague Charles Spence, from the University of Oxford in the UK, suggest their findings add to the body of of evidence that shows food and drink can smell and taste differently according to the plate or cup in which it is served.

Piqueras-Fiszman says in a statement released to the press last week:

“The color of the container where food and drink are served can enhance some attributes like taste and aroma.”

Writing about their findings in the Journal of Sensory Studies, she and Spence suggest this type of information is of interest not only to scientists, or dinner hosts entertaining guests, but also to chefs, restauranteurs, and the food packaging industry.

They say their research may explain why some people prefer to drink their tea or coffee out of the same “favourite” mug or cup.

For their study, they invited 57 participants to sample hot chocolate drinks served in four different plastic cups, of the type used in vending machines. The cups varied only by color: white, dark cream, red and orange on the outside, with white on the inside.

After sampling each drink, the participants were asked to give it a score between 1 and 10 on different qualities: enjoyment, sweetness, flavor, and chocolate aroma.

The results showed that the hot chocolate scored highest on flavor when served in orange and cream plastic cups, while white plastic cups scored significantly worse than any other plastic cup color.

Cream cups scored slighlty higher on sweetness and aroma, said the researchers.

The study adds to evidence that shows foods and beverages can taste differently when the container varies, although the reasons for this remain unclear.

Piqueras-Fiszman says the color of the container in which food or drink is served has “more potential than one could imagine”.

In their paper, the researchers mention a number of other studies that have explored this effect. For example, using yellow tins to improve a lemon flavor, or using cold colors like blue to to give a more thirst-quenching appeal to cold drinks. And containers in pink can make a drink seem sweeter.

In another study, researchers showed that strawberry mousse tastes sweeter and more intense when served on a white plate than a black plate.

Piqueras-Fiszman and Spence say their results should interest scientists researching how the brain processes visual information about food. It could also be of interest to chefs, restaurants, and even the food packaging industry.

“… it is a case of experimenting to understand how the container itself affects the perceptions that the consumers have on the product,” says Piqueras-Fiszman.

Meanwhile, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US, have found that changes in pill color can significantly increase the odds that patients will stop taking their drugs as prescribed.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD