“Alcohol tastes sweeter when loud music is playing,” Metro reported today. The news is based on a study that found that people listening to loud club music rated alcohol as tasting sweeter than those who were either listening to nothing at all, to a news story, or to a mix of music and news.
According to an interview with the lead researcher the findings offer a “plausible explanation” as to why people drink more alcohol in noisy environments and “has implications for bars, the drinks industry and local authorities”.
This was a small experimental study, carried out over 45 minutes. It used a specific population – young and mainly female – and one specific type of drink – cranberry juice and vodka – and took place in laboratory conditions rather than in the ‘real world’. Given these limitations, its findings are of minor interest and should be viewed with caution.
Alcohol and pop music are a potent mix in terms of sensory arousal, and the relationship between the two is complex. People probably drink more in clubs, bars and parties where there is loud music for a variety of reasons, including general excitement, nervousness and to release inhibitions (so that they can dance to the music). Music arguably makes people want to stay on – and therefore drink more. Whether altered perception of the taste of alcohol is also a factor in people drinking more when listening to music is uncertain. How, or whether, this research informs alcohol strategy, industry attitudes or people’s individual consumption is unclear.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Portsmouth and was funded by the Alcohol Education Council (now known as Alcohol Research UK). The study was published in the online journal Food Quality and Preference.
The unusual study was covered briefly and uncritically in Metro, and the music newspaper NME.
What kind of research was this?
This was an experimental laboratory study looking at whether certain background ‘distractions‘ – including club music – could alter people’s taste perceptions of alcohol. It also examined whether these distractions affected people’s ability to estimate the strength of alcoholic drinks.
The authors say that prior research has demonstrated that noise can alter taste perceptions of food. If similar effects are seen with respect to alcohol, it might explain previous observational research that found that people drink more alcohol more quickly in environments where there is loud music.
Limited conclusions can be drawn from an experimental study of this type for a number of reasons: it was performed in a select population; it has rated highly subjective perceptions, such as taste; and because the participants’ judgement may have been influenced by them knowing the purpose of the study. For example, participants may have been expecting alcohol to taste better when they were listening to music rather than having to concentrate on a stimulus such as hearing a news story, so unknowingly bias their response.
What did the research involve?
The study involved 80 participants who were randomly allocated to four groups and then asked to ‘taste test‘ five alcoholic drinks varying in strength while listening to different ‘distractions’. The four different distractions were:
- listening to loud club music
- listening to and repeating a news story
- listening to music with one ear and a news story (which they then had to repeat) with the other
- listening to nothing
The study involved 80 university students – 69 women and 11 men – between the ages of 18 and 28, using an online recruitment system. They were told that the study was looking at what factors influenced our sense of alcohol perception. Participants had to be regular consumers of alcohol i.e. drinking at least eight units a week.
The testing took place in the laboratory over a period of five hours. Before the study, participants completed various standard smell and taste tests, to check for any differences between the groups. They were also rated for other factors that might affect the results, including arousal, thirst, hunger and measurements of positive and negative mood. Two preliminary studies were undertaken to select the most appropriate levels of alcohol and mixers, as well as the most appropriate music to use.
Over a 45-minute period, participants were asked to sample the five test drinks while listening to music, news, both or nothing at all. The five drinks were freshly prepared mixes of cranberry juice and vodka, with the ratio between juice and alcohol altering to increase the drinks’ strength. A sip of water was taken between each drink to help cleanse the palette.
The participants were asked to sample and rate the drinks for various properties including sweetness, strength and bitterness, using a visual analogue scale with descriptors ranging from ‘low’ to ‘very high’ (depending on the question). After the drinks had been removed, researchers measured final ratings for arousal, thirst and hunger followed by positive and negative mood, using appropriate rating scales.
Researchers analysed the data using standard statistical methods.
What were the basic results?
The main results of the research were that:
- They found an effect of the alcohol content on the drink: increasing alcohol content decreased the sweetness of the drink, increased the bitterness rating and perceptions of the strength of the drink.
- They found an effect of the group: those exposed to loud music alone consistently rated alcohol as sweeter than other groups receiving other exposures; for bitterness people also rated alcohol as less bitter when listening to music, but this was a more marginal effect.
- There was a group effect upon perceptions of alcohol strength: those who listened to both music and news story were more likely to have impaired judgement about alcohol strength.
- Those listening to both music and a news story also had increased negative mood compared to the other groups.
- Group allocation had no effect upon arousal, thirst or hunger.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that their findings suggest that music can alter the taste of alcohol, which they suggest could have ‘serious consequences’ for individuals in noisy drinking environments.
This was a small study, carried out over 45 minutes in laboratory conditions rather than in the “real world”. It used a specific population – young and mainly female – and tested one specific type of drink, that being cranberry juice and vodka. The study has also rated highly subjective perceptions in response to stimuli that are likely to have influenced their perception, given that participants knew the purpose of the study. For example, participants may have been expecting alcohol to taste better when they were listening to music rather than having to concentrate on a news story, so unknowingly bias their response. It is also perhaps not that surprising that those who were asked to listen to loud music with one ear while simultaneously listening to a news story with the other and then repeating it, reported feeling grumpier by the end.
The study also assumes that the ‘sweetness’ of an alcoholic drink would make people want to drink more (based on the assumption that humans have a natural preference for sweet-tasting food and drink). However, different individuals may appreciate alcohol for other qualities, such as bitterness or crispness. The study has not investigated whether taste perceptions influenced participants’ desire or tendency to drink more alcohol.
Overall, this study’s findings are of minor interest, but should be viewed with caution.
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
Metro, 15 December 2011
NME, 14 December 2011
Links to the science
Food Quality and Preference, Volume 24, Issue 1, pages 218-224