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Taste test: Does hot cocoa taste better from an orange cup?

A recent study suggests hot chocolate tastes better out of an orange-colored mug. Intrepid Crave reporter Amanda Kooser dives tongue-first into her own experiment to see if she agrees.

Mugs with hot chocolate
Guess which hot chocolate is most delicious?
Amanda Kooser/CNET

I've always heard that smell plays an important role in how food tastes. I didn't expect that color could also sway the taste buds. A study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies found that the color of a cup can influence the way people taste hot chocolate.

Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, a researcher at the Polytechnic University of Valencia in Spain, and Charles Spence, a professor at the University of Oxford in England, subjected 57 participants to what may be one the tastiest science experiments ever.

The participants tasted samples of hot chocolate served in four different colors of plastic cups: white, cream, red, and orange. The sippers preferred the flavor of the beverage in orange or cream-colored cups.

So why did orange and cream set themselves apart from white and red? It's a bit mysterious, but it definitely involves the way the brain processes visual information and allows it to influence our sense of taste.

"These results should hopefully help stimulate chefs, restaurateurs, and those working in the food and beverage packaging sectors to think more carefully about the color of their plateware/packaging and its potential effects on their customers' perception of the taste/flavor of the products that they happen to be serving/delivering to market," the researchers write.

There has already been research into how the color of food itself impacts our taste. A 2007 study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that the color of orange juice had a greater impact on taste perception than actual differences in samples. What's intriguing about this latest study is how the color of the packaging impacts our taste perceptions.

The taste challenge
Not one to shy away from a science challenge, I took it upon myself to become a guinea pig and tackle this important issue head-on. I raided the cabinet for Fiestaware, coming up with mugs in the colors of red, blue, and orange.

I prepared two packets of Starbucks-brand hot cocoa in double chocolate flavor in a 2-cup measuring cup. I poured an equal amount into each mug. Sipping them thoughtfully, I thought I detected a greater smoothness and sweetness in the hot chocolate that was gently steaming in the orange mug.

The problem with my findings is that I already knew the results of the study. I needed an unwitting test subject, so I called the one person I know who is a hot chocolate connoisseur... my mother.

My mom came over and tasted the hot chocolate from each cup. She considered the flavors. She thought the red mug tasted a bit bitter. She thought the blue was nicely chocolatey. Her favorite, though, was the hot chocolate in the orange mug.

Sure, my test sample size is incredibly small, but the orange mug is the clear winner of my mini-experiment. I also learned something very important today. Science is delicious.

Testing hot chocolate mugs
The taste test requires deep contemplation. Amanda Kooser/CNET