On a recent Monday afternoon I stepped into the red dimness of a sensory laboratory at AUT and took a seat in a small booth.

In front of me, and of all my fellow tasters, were 20 samples of chocolate ice-cream, made by Kohu Road Ice Cream.

It was our task to taste the samples, rating each one (such is the difficult life of a food writer). Then we tasted a second set, while listening to music, and rated how we liked each one again.

The goal was to determine how music affected enjoyment of the ice-cream. The experiment was a replay of one by researchers at AUT. In that study, they concluded music does make a difference to taste perception.


It was found when people liked or felt neutral about the music they were listening to, the ice-cream tasted sweeter.

When they didn't like the music, bitterness was perceived more. This suggests when we are in a better emotional state - as we are when exposed to enjoyable music - we enjoy our food more.

This all makes perfect sense.

Food is a sensual pleasure. And it's not limited to just the sense of taste. Eating is a multi-sensory experience. Think about the best meal you have ever eaten. For most of us, it wasn't just about the food.

It would also have been about the situation and the company - maybe in a fun location, maybe on holiday, probably with favourite friends and family - as much as it was about the food.

Our enjoyment would have been affected by the setting, the occasion and the atmosphere. Take that food - no matter how exceptional - out of the setting and try it again, and chances are it won't taste the same.

This kind of food psychology research has many implications for health.

Our surroundings can affect our weight, for example. There's evidence we eat more in the company of others than when we are on our own. We eat more when screens distract us. And we eat more when we choose from a buffet than a menu, although menu descriptions can have a huge impact on what we choose.

Items with descriptive terms - succulent, tender, crunchy, creamy - are far more likely to be chosen.

The situations we eat in can also affect our overall health. Japanese research recently found elderly men who dine alone have a higher mortality rate than those who dine with family. Solo diners are also more likely to suffer depression and malnutrition.

So when we think of eating for health, as always, we need to look at the big picture. It's not just about what we eat, it's about how, too.

• Niki Bezzant is editor-at-lwarge of Healthy Food Guide