Irrationally Tasty

“It’s a Zen moment, and the cup should reflect that,” said a Starbucks creative director to Fast Company recently.

She was talking about Teavana’s new pristine cup design with disguised sleeve, instead of the old cardboard option, and it sounded like bullshit. 

“Zen moment”?

But in truth, I’m not any more rational when it comes to judging a drink by its cup. Not long ago, I gazed up at a charmingly-chalked menu board at a local coffeehouse and ordered a “London Fog Tea Latte.”

It arrived on the counter in a porcelain cup with saucer. Four lavender seeds were arranged in a fleur-de-lis in the center of the froth. The barista gave me a bestowing nod, and sure enough, it was the best tea latte I’d ever tasted. In fact… I found myself thinking “Mmm” before the cup even reached my lips.

And then I felt shame. 

As a marketer, how could I have been so swayed by aesthetics? Shouldn’t I have known better than to fall (as a guy I dated liked to say) for “form over content”?

I began to wonder: suppose my tea latte had come in a paper cup instead of a porcelain one. Or a weathered diner mug — coffee stains, a grey crack, a few layers of leftover lipstick, a wilted tea bag string stuck to the lipstick. Would it have instead tasted like Bigelow, with a splash of half-and-half?

But this $4.50 tea masterpiece dazzled me. I was under its spell. And clearly I’m not the only one who subconsciously answers the siren call of attractive drink packaging.

You know, maybe it isn’t a trick. Maybe these are damn fine quality beverages. Perhaps, too, our expectation affects how we perceive taste, so the belief that we’ll be sipping greatness actually makes a drink taste good.

But what about times when this phenomenon might be leading us astray? 

While the consequence of misapplying worship to a tea beverage is small, what if sometimes tasting goodness because something looks good… has us eating pure garbage?

Our vulnerability to the halo effect is well-documented. So it stands to reason that there are times we’re tasting nourishment, freshness, quality — when there is none.

Does this mean we should be on guard against platingcolors, garnishes and ambiance? Is that necessary, in order to taste our food for what it really is and thus stay true to our nutrition goals? And in the face of our innate vulnerability to food artisanry, is there anything we can do?

I’ll be exploring these questions a lot on the blog, so I’d love to hear your opinion.

xo Chelsea

P.S. Check out a follow-up post about McDonald’s Photoshopped burger ads.


I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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4 thoughts on “Irrationally Tasty

  1. I love this Chelsea. I too am guilty of being an aestheticist. I mean there is nothing wrong with a beautiful cup of tea, but you are right, the content needs to measure up to that cute cup and saucer.

  2. I don’t necessarily know that you are correct in thinking that the taste is the most real or important part of the tea drinking experience. Certainly, we are all afraid of being the person who is duped into drinking a bad cup of tea by good presentation (and everyone knows, bad cups of tea abound in the US), but if the deception is so convincing that we ourselves think the tea is good, what is lost?

    Of course, it can be problematic when the visual promise of a delicious experience leads to a big disappointment once the item is actually consumed. This used to happen to me all the time with beautifully decorated pastries. The pastel delicate ones always end up being a flavorless letdown, I’ve finally learned to choose a homely baklava instead.

  3. If your pleasure was genuine, what does it matter the source. Even if there was a possibility of a lie, if you somehow receive more joy from that lie over the other one, then why not indulge. Worst case, your just satisfying a visual stimulant over a taste one :).

  4. If the goal is pleasure, then I think it doesn’t matter. But what if the goal is to eat healthfully? Suppose we apply the same attractive-bias to food and unconsciously assume it’s nutritious or fresh if it’s visually vibrant, thoughtfully prepared, made at a fancy restaurant, etc?

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