Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Coffee tastes better in a Styrofoam cup.
Kevin Sturtevant, an English instructor at SMCC, sips from a coffee mug at Arabica Coffee on Friday. Sturtevant says he is opposed to Styrofoam cups because of the waste they cause.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Ernie Mills of Old Orchard Beach sips coffee from his paper Dunkin’ Donuts cup Friday. Mills said he prefers paper over Styrofoam because of the feel of the cup.
Really, say some folks concerned about Portland's proposed ban on Styrofoam containers. But is it a fact these folks can prove? Or is it all in their heads?
The answer, according to a trio of scientists with lots of initials after their names, is yes -- and yes.
What most of us think of as the "taste" of something is really a combination of sensory reactions in our brain, says Gordon M. Shepherd, professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut and author of the book "Neurogastronomy: How The Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters."
Shepherd says how a cup of coffee feels and looks affects your sense of how it tastes, as does the aroma, your past experiences with that cup, your cup-handling habits, and your expectations of all that cup might offer.
That's not to say Styrofoam doesn't add anything to coffee, because it can. Styrofoam is made from petrochemicals, and some of those can be "extracted" by hot coffee, said Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine in Orono.
The question of why we taste what we taste was raised last week during public reaction to an impending city of Portland ban on the sale of food and beverages in Styrofoam containers. A group working to craft a city ordinance outlining the ban is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Monday in Room 24 at City Hall. Any ordinance would have to go to the full City Council for approval.
The ban would likely result in coffee sellers using paper cups instead of Styrofoam for a cup to go. Some coffee drinkers who heard about the coming ban proclaimed they preferred Styrofoam for coffee because it retains heat better and because paper cups make coffee taste differently.
But looking more closely at the science, and how our brains process taste, it's likely folks who say coffee tastes better in Styrofoam cups have always had coffee in Styrofoam. Or at least have had very positive experiences with Styrofoam.
"When we're judging the taste of something, we're basing some of it on expectations, on what it looks like, what we're familiar with. So if somebody has drunk from a Styrofoam cup their whole life and has liked the experience, to them the Styrofoam cup will probably taste better," said Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pa., a research institute focusing on the science of taste and smell.
"They've learned that coffee in that kind of cup is something they're going to like."
So yes, a cup of coffee in Styrofoam can taste better to you than coffee in a paper cup, depending on your extensive personal history and personal preferences ... and because people's brains -- after compiling all sorts of sensory data -- are the final arbiter of what tastes good. So yes, it's all in their heads.
Folks at three Portland coffee spots Friday confirmed that taste is a very personal matter, affected by a lot more than what goes in your mouth. In fact, of the half-dozen folks asked about the taste of coffee in a Styrofoam cup versus a paper one, most gave answers that had little to do with taste.
"I don't like the Styrofoam because it keeps the coffee too hot and I can't drink it right away. I have to order the coffee 20 minutes before I want to drink it," said Isaac Turner, 33, a commercial photographer from Portland who now lives in Philadelphia, as he sat near the back of Arabica on Free Street. "When I order coffee, I usually needed it 10 minutes ago. But I don't think the taste is any different."
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