Science Questions

Does metallic cutlery affect perception of food taste?

Sat, 7th Jul 2012

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Armin Weller asked:

Dear Chris,




Does metallic cutlery really affect perception of food taste?


For example common wisdom tells that caviar should not be eaten from steel spoons and for gourmet occasions often porcelain or bone spoons are used.


Some people do state that raw fruit tastes differently when cut with ceramic knifes than when cut with common stainless steel knifes.


How much of this is myth?




Armin H. Weller


We put this to Professor Mark Miadovnich, from University College London...

Mark: -   I've got some cereal here and I'm eating it with a silver spoon.  I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I've since acquired some.  There is a slight taste from the silver, as I expected because we actually did some experiments, making spoons of different materials- gold, silver, tin, copper, zinc, and stainless steel of course.  We did blind taste tests with just the spoon alone and found that people are very sensitive to the different tastes of different metals.  In fact, they can distinguish between them very clearly.  They find them to be, to a greater or lesser extent, bitter, metallic, unpleasant is another adjective people use for some of these metallic tastes.  And that, we found out in the end was due to something called the electrode potential of the metal.  So its ability to react in the mouth and produce ions of a particular type – so in the case of a copper spoon, copper ions, and in the case of silver, silver ions.  So, the least reactive metals are the ones we expect to taste least, and that’s broadly what we found.

Hannah -   So, metals produce ions in your mouth and the more reactive the metal, the stronger the taste produced.  The alloy stainless steel actually produces the mildest taste.  But do some foods taste better with different materials?  Professor Zoe Laughlin from University College London led blind taste tests to find out.

Zoe -   Specifically, for something like a boiled egg for example where the sulphur really reacts, a material like silver is really a bad idea because it tastes really foul, whereas gold is quite delicious.  And then when it comes to sweet things, we actually found the strong taste of the copper and zinc made the sweetness of the food even stronger.

Hannah -   And beyond chemistry, what else can alter your perception of taste?  Back to Mark Miadovnich…

Mark -   The size of the spoon, the shape of the spoon, the thermal conductivity, in this case it’s conducting heat away from my tongue very quickly, so it’s cool.  If I start using a plastic spoon now, we’re into a whole different ball game.  And this is where this example of thinking about what spoon material you might use to eat caviar is quite an interesting one.  Because actually, even if the material is chemically inert, like something like ivory, there are several differences in the way that heat is taken from your tongue and your mouth.  The texture is very important, so wooden spoons tend to give a particular sensation in the mouth which can be both pleasant or unpleasant depending on who you are.


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While some foods will react with some metals, generally speaking the food isn't in contact with the cutlery long enough to have any effect.

But then, if you can afford caviar, you can afford to waste money on dedicated eating implements. Don_1, Wed, 2nd Nov 2011

What about if the cutlery comes into contact with a bit of dental instrumentation, like a filling? Will the ensuing intra-oral electrolysis produce ionic species that make for an interesting flavour sensation? I seem to remember that sucking my magnesium-bodied, steel-bladed pencil-sharpener (don't ask, I was little and at school) did something similar... chris, Tue, 3rd Jul 2012

I thought you meant does cereal  taste different if you eat it with a fork, or is Chinese food better with chop sticks. I like some drinks better with a straw, like milkshakes. cheryl j, Fri, 6th Jul 2012

Coke tasted better in those green bottles. cheryl j, Fri, 6th Jul 2012

Well the fact that some old steel knives will discolour in a few moments after cutting acidic fruit does make me think that perhaps something is going the other way too; but that's not science its guesswork.  I think a lot of the sensation is to do with the touch on the lips and/or tongue.  If anyone wishes to test the taste sensations of fine food via posh cutlery or plastic spoon can I volunteer to be a taster please?

Grab some strawberries - have your mum, partner, wife/husband slice half up with a silver knife and half with a plastic spoon, then have your dad, friend, child pass them onto you for tasting in a fairly random selection of pairs.  Mark which of each pair you prefer.... imatfaal, Fri, 6th Jul 2012

Another piece of incontrovertible anecdotal evidence:

When I grind steel and get some of the particles on my hands, I can actually smell the steel. What I'm smelling may be a consequence of a reaction between the steel and the sweat on my palms, but if we can detect the presence of metals this way, I don't think we should have any difficulty detecting reactions with metals by taste.

Geezer, Fri, 6th Jul 2012

I think it is more to do with the texture of the eating implement. The tongue detects this and the brain alters the experience of what the food taste like accordingly.

A metal knife is cold, heavy and smooth.
A plastic knife is smooth and light, and has a property suggestive of thermal insulation.
A wooden knife would have a light but rough texture. FuzzyUK, Fri, 6th Jul 2012 RD, Sat, 7th Jul 2012

One psychologist suggested that the weight of the cutlery affected the perceived quality of the food.
Metal tends to be denser than plastic.... evan_au, Sat, 7th Jul 2012

Update: The Neurogastronomy expert was Professor Charles Spence, of Oxford University.
The interview with Dr Karl can be found here:
The segment on airplane food begins at 27:20 minutes, and runs for 2 minutes.
In the same interview, he suggests that "metallic" is an actual taste sensation, but a minor one, unlike the usual 5 flavours. evan_au, Sat, 7th Jul 2012

It is said that a souffle mixed in a copper bowl will rise better.
This is because during the short period of mixing, the copper reacts with conalbumin from the eggs, to produce a compound which sets at a higher temperature, so it can rise higher before it sets. evan_au, Sat, 7th Jul 2012

Does this have something to do with temprature? A metal spoon will conduct heat differently to a wooden spoon. A cold beer tastes different to a warm one, the only difference being its temprature. Maybe a good experiment here would be to use the same cuttlery on dishes at different tempratures. acecharly, Sun, 8th Jul 2012

It is said that cutting green leaf veg with a knife has an adverse effect on the vitamins. I don't know if there is any truth in that, but 'er indoors insists on cutting greens, after cooking, by leaving them in a colander and using the edge of a saucer to cut it.

When she first said that's how she wanted it done, I made the mistake of using a calender. Made a heck of mess of February. Don_1, Sun, 15th Jul 2012

I'm wondering..if you eat with a metal fork doesn't your food some taste kind of metally (is that even a word?) but if you eat with plastic it kinda tastes normal? If you get what I mean? ;) Indusha, Tue, 11th Sep 2012

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