Shut up and smell the coffee: Caffeine lovers are more likely to enjoy their daily cappuccino, latte or Americano at home than in a cafe as background noise dampens the senses
- Loud background noise masks the taste and flavour of coffee, scientists suggest
- It lessens perceptions of coffee’s sweetness, bitterness, acidity and temperature
- Cafes could have noise cancelling headphones on tables to enhance enjoyment
Caffeine lovers are more likely to enjoy their daily cappuccino, latte or Americano when there is less noise around them, new research has found.
In experiments, coffee was perceived as having less aroma by people who were fed loud noise through a pair of headphones while they drank.
Coffee was also more likely to be perceived as expensive and of a higher quality when people were played gentle background noise, as opposed to loud background noise.
Loud noise also had the effect of masking its natural sweetness – meaning it could have the knock-on effect of coffee lovers adding more sugar to their beverage.
Cafes that want to accentuate the quality of their coffee could provide noise-cancellation headphones on tables in a Heston Blumenthal-like twist.
Urban noise can affect food and beverage experiences and possibly consumption, the multinational team of researchers suggest. Coffee tasted particularly less bitter and was perceived as having less aroma under loud noise, they found
The research shows why coffee can often be more pleasurable when drunk in a quiet spot outdoors than in a packed food hall or busy cafe.
‘The results suggest that a loud noise tends to reduce the overall sensitivity of the coffee experience, and this is most clear concerning the bitterness and aroma intensity,’ said the study authors in their paper, published in Food Quality and Preference.
‘When the participants were asked to rate each coffee tasting experience, individually, they tended to rate the same coffee as significantly less bitter, and as having a less intense aroma, when tasted with the louder noise.’
The researchers, from Ecuador, Colombia and Norway, asked 384 volunteers to drink coffee in a room while wearing headphones.
Experiments took place in a room inside the campus of Universidad de las Américas in Quito, Ecuador between July and September 2019.
The coffee sample was a blend of Arabica green beans, medium roasted and harvested from the Ecuadorian highlands, and prepared by a professional barista with a percolator.
The room where the study was carried out. Participants weren’t told they were drinking the same coffee when they listened to both quiet and loud background noise
Each participant drank the same coffee twice, either while exposed to a loud or quiet version of the same background noise of a food court.
None of them were informed that they were actually tasting the same coffee twice.
The headphones played chatter either at a very noisy level of around 85 decibels or much quieter at less than 20 decibels.
85 decibels is around the same volume as a vacuum cleaner, while 20 decibels is barely a whisper.
For the quieter sounds, participants were tested with both passive and active noise control headphones.
Active noise cancelling headphones use technology to generate their own sound waves that cancel out exterior waves, while passive rely on the sound-blocking materials with which they are made.
After each tasting, participants were asked to answer questions related to flavor attributes, such as sweetness, bitterness, acidity and flavour intensity, as well as their willingness to pay for the drink, in the form of a questionnaire on a Samsung tablet.
Dummy head holding the headphones with sound level meter (D). This questionnaire was accessed via Wi-Fi network on a Samsung tablet (A)
RESULTS OF COFFEE TASTINGS
Below is a sample of questions for participants after they’d tasted the coffee with both loud and quiet background noise.
Percentages refer to the proportion of participants who selected each option.
(These results are for passive noise cancelling headphones)
– Which coffee was better?
Loud (L) – selected by 19.8 per cent
Quiet (Q) 64.6
Equal (E) 15.6
– ‘Please select which characteristics of the experience were more present during the tasting’
Quality of flavor L 21.4, Q 64.1, E 14.6
Sweetness L 19.3, Q 50.0, E 30.0
Bitterness L 28.6, Q 56.3, E 15.1
Acidity L 24.0, Q 54.7, E 21.4
Flavor intensity L 22.9, Q 60.9, E 16.1
Aroma intensity L 24.5, Q 59.9, E 15.6
Temperature L 17.7, Q 43.8, E 38.5
They were then asked to compare both coffee tastings based on the above characteristics.
In the noisier test, where individual voices and conversations were clearer, half the drinkers were less likely to identify the qualities and characteristics of the coffee they were drinking, including taste, strength, aroma and bitterness.
Coffee also tasted particularly less bitter and was perceived as having less aroma under loud noise, leading them to be less inclined to purchase the coffee.
More than twice the amount of the participants thought the coffee to be a better and more expensive alternative when listening to quiet noise than loud noise.
When asked ‘which coffee do you think was better?’, 19.8 per cent picked the one they drank while listening to loud noise, compared with 64.6 per cent while listening to quiet noise with passive noise cancelling headphones.
The remaining 15.6 per cent cottoned on to the fact that both servings were the same coffee by saying they tasted ‘equally good’.
When asked to select the characteristics of the coffee that were more present during the tasting, 50 per cent of participants selected sweetness during the quiet noise, compared to 19.3 per cent during the loud noise.
This was 56.3 per cent versus 28.6 per cent for bitterness, 54.7 per cent versus 24 per cent for acidity and 60.9 per cent compared with 22.9 per cent for flavour intensity.
There were also perceived differences in temperature – 43.8 per cent detected a hotter coffee during quiet noise versus 17.7 per cent for loud noise – despite the fact that all samples were kept at a constant heat.
If they want to accentuate the quality of their coffee, cafes could provide headphones on tables for diners to block out noise
And 50 per cent detected sweeter coffee during the quiet sample compared to 19.3 per cent during the loud sample – even though no sugar was added at any point.
Figures were similar with the active noise control headphones as well.
The findings have implications for public health, the researchers argue.
‘These results suggest that loud versus less loud urban noise can moderate behavior during food and drink situations,’ they say in their paper.
‘For instance, a person that is constantly – and perhaps unaware – under the influence of a very noisy urban environment while drinking coffee, may unconsciously be driven towards consuming a potentially unnecessary stronger coffee with excessive added sugar.
‘In fact, excessive sugar consumption is a major health problem.’
Coffee brands could therefore use noise-control solutions if they want to consider the experience of their customers and offer optimum multi-sensory conditions.
One solution may be to wear noise cancelling headphones on cafe tables while drinking coffee to filter out background chatter in particularly loud environments, such as next to roads or shops.
The study findings is evocative of British chef Heston Blumenthal’s techniques for multi-sensory dining.
At Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, Berkshire, diners have listened to the sounds of the sea through an iPod while eating a seafood course to ‘enhance the sense of taste’.