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May 02, 2014 09:28 AM EDT

Diners Find Expensive Food Tastier, Study

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Diners perceive expensive food to be tastier than the same meal offered at a lower price, according to a Cornell University study. Researchers said that taste perception and feelings of overeating and guilt can be manipulated by price alone.

"We were fascinated to find that pricing has little impact on how much one eats, but a huge impact on how you interpret the experience," Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a professor at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said in a press release. "Simply cutting the price of food at a restaurant dramatically affects how customers evaluate and appreciate the food."

For the study, the researchers asked 139 diners to assess an upstate New York restaurant and its high-quality Italian buffet priced at either $4 or $8. They were also asked to rate their first, middle and last taste of the food using a scale of nine points.

The researchers found that diners who chose the $8 buffet relished their food 11 percent more than those with the $4 buffet, despite both the groups eating the same amount of food under similar conditions. Participants, who ate from the lesser priced buffet, did not enjoy the meal much and reported frequent feelings of overeating and guilt.

"If the food is there, you are going to eat it, but the pricing very much affects how you are going to feel about your meal and how you will evaluate the restaurant," said Ozge Sigirci, a researcher at Food and Brand Lab who conducted the study.

Public health researchers and health advocates said that all-you-can-eat buffets promote overeating and contribute to obesity. The study did not determine the public health implications of such buffets, but the researchers said that it provides lessons on enhancing the restaurant experience and healthy eating.

"If you're a consumer and want to eat at a buffet, the best thing to do is eat at the most expensive buffet you can afford. You won't eat more, but you'll have a better experience overall," said Wansink. "This is an example of how a really small change can transform how a person interacts with food in a way that doesn't entail dieting."

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