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Love Really Does Make Food Taste Sweeter

"I believe, I'm in love, sweet love
Hear me calling out your name, I feel no shame
I'm in love, sweet love
Don't you ever go away, it'll always be this way"


As Anita Baker sang in her 1986 single "Sweet Love," love is decidedly sugary. For additional reminders, you can go back to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or you can dig up and devour the leftover sweetheart candies you still have in your desk drawer from Valentine's Day.

Given that love and sweetness are so ubiquitously linked, researchers at the National University of Singapore wondered whether the connection carries over to real world perception. Does love actually make food taste sweeter?

Unlike sprinkling powdered sugar over donuts, you can't simply dollop love onto food, so the researchers adopted a more nuanced approach, which they put into action over four separate experiments.

shutterstock_116600965.jpgThe first two experiments ascertained whether or not subjects actually associated love with sweetness. In the first, 37 participants were asked to equate different tastes -- sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy -- with certain emotions -- love, jealousy, passion, sadness, and betrayal on a 1 (not related) to 7 (highly related) scale. In the second, researchers asked 102 subjects the question, "If love were a taste, what taste would it be?" and had them write down at least two tastes that came to mind. Subjects were also asked the same question about

jealousy, sadness, betrayal, and passion. Both experiments showed love to be strongly correlated to sweetness. Jealousy was also paired with two tastes: sour and bitter.

Next, a different set of subjects was brought into the lab, ostensibly for a consumer taste preference study. They were then asked to write about a time they felt romantic love, felt romantic jealously, or -- as a control -- about landmarks in Singapore. Afterwards, they were either given a sample of an equally sweet and sour candy or an equally sweet and bitter chocolate and asked to rate how sweet, bitter, sour, spicy, and salty the samples were on a 1 to 7 scale.

Subjects primed to feel love rated their chocolates significantly sweeter than those who wrote about jealousy or landmarks in Singapore. However, subjects primed to feel jealousy -- which was paired to sour and bitter tastes in the first experiments -- did not rate their samples more sour or bitter than those who wrote about love or landmarks. 

Finally, in a fourth experiment, 93 subjects were brought in. Some were told to write about an event that made them happy (as a control), while others wrote about instances of romantic jealousy or love. They were then given 25 mL of a new "noncommercial product" to taste. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the product was plain distilled water. Like in the previous experiment, they rated the how sweet, bitter, sour, spicy, and salty the water was. Again, participants induced to feel love rated the water as sweeter compared to those induced to feel jealous or happy.

"In short, love "tastes" sweet, although jealousy does not "taste" sour or bitter despite what its metaphorical associations might suggest," lead researcher Kai Qin Chan says.

A possible explanation for love's sweetness has to do with how the brain is wired. Prior research has demonstrated that the anterior cingulate cortex, a region tied to reward anticipation, is activated both when viewing one's romantic partner and when tasting sugar.

"It is possible that when one experiences love, the anterior cingulate cortex would activate representations associated with sweetness, thereby eliciting sweetness sensations even without actual sweetness input," Chan explains.

Such an explanation also accounts for why the jealousy primes failed to elicit more bitter or sour taste sensations from subjects.

One hopes that this study won't prompt love to be sold as an artificial sweetener, but you never know what marketers will shamelessly promote come next Valentine's Day.

Source: Kai Qin Chan, Eddie Mun Wai Tong, Deborah Hui Tan, and Alethea Hui Qin Koh. What do Love and Jealousy Taste Like? Emotion. 2013 Sep 16

(Image: Lovecake via Shutterstock)