Is an Oreo cookie better when pulled apart?

The answer might be yes, but not because a separated cookie has more flavor.

Those who prefer the lift-and-lick method might not know it, but they’re performing a ritual. Same with people who peel an apple from left to right, fold a piece of pizza in half before they eat it, or tap a soda can before opening it.

These small, simple acts make food taste better. Even carrots.

That reflects the findings of a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Harvard on how rituals affect food.

In tests that paired rituals with specific foods, study participants reported that “the flavor tasted more pungent, and people took longer to eat the foods, a sign of savoring,” said lead researcher Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “They rated the experience as better, and were willing to pay more to do it again.”

Rituals, acts typically repeated in the same manner, are used on special occasions and in ceremonies (sacred and profane) to heighten the experience and to connect us to one another and to the past. A food-related ritual can be anything from popping a Champagne cork to serving the Thanksgiving cranberries in great-grandmother’s cut-glass bowl.

“They get ingrained in our psyches,” said Mark Blegen, chair of St. Catherine University’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences, “and because of those rituals, we outsource our decisionmaking to the environment and just eat.”

Today’s laboratory: millions of groaning dinner tables around the country. The ritual: carving the turkey, which might evoke Norman Rockwellian warm-and-fuzzy feelings, but, said sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat, also will kick-start a physical reaction.

“That smell of the turkey being carved is a very potent trigger for food craving,” said Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania. “You’re watching while it’s carved, and you can’t eat it. That is likely to stimulate desire and then enjoyment and appreciation.”

Most often, mealtime rituals are more subtle, but no less effective.

At Minneapolis’ posh La Belle Vie, general manager/co-owner Bill Summerville coaches his crew on, well, everything: from wearing crisp attire to the right amount of attentiveness, the choreography of greeting guests and escorting them to a table, even posture.

“Everything we do — how we stand, how we move — has an effect on our guests,” Summerville said. “It might be conscious or subconscious. [Customers] probably don’t lock in and say the table is aligned just right, but it registers.”

While he was hesitant to say that these little touches make the food taste better, Summerville insisted that “you can’t have one without the others — the food, the service, the atmosphere, the small things that make the experience better, they all add up.”

Expectations and cues

Vohs’ research was a bit more plebian.

She had noticed one of her own rituals — putting just a pinch of sugar into her espresso, tasting, then adding more until she has used half the packet. But it was a different kind of beverage that gave her the idea to study the way ritual affects how we eat.

“I was having friends over for a small party,” she said, “and I opened a wine bottle with a screw cap and made a little sour face, because it just felt so flat, so unceremonial. Then I turned to my friends and wondered if the wine would ever taste good given that it was missing the whole romance of opening the cork.”

Shortly thereafter, Vohs, Carlson Ph.D. candidate Yajin Wang and two Harvard professors collaborated on a study they called “Rituals Enhance Consumption.”

In the first experiment, some of the participants broke a wrapped chocolate bar in half, unwrapped one half, ate it, then unwrapped the other half and ate that. The other participants could eat the chocolate bar any way they pleased. The first group “spent more time eating and enjoyed it more and were willing to pay more for the food,” Wang said.

Another test revealed that the people who mixed lemonade enjoyed drinking it more than those who only watched the lemonade being mixed. In the final experiment, a control group using precise (but meaningless) hand gestures found carrots more gratifying than a group that just ate the carrots.

“We put people into a ritual mind-set, and it led to an enhanced experience,” Wang said. “We were really excited to see the factor turn out to be so large. We saw a huge effect from merely performing repeated, episodic behavior.”

Pelchat didn’t find the results surprising. “It’s not that food is better,” she said, “but the ritual becomes part of the memory of the whole experience. I don’t enjoy Asian food as much if I can’t have chopsticks. Given that we’re so suggestible when it comes to flavor, maybe this is not so surprising.”

In some ways, Pelchat added, these rituals fit in with other traditions that put us in a savoring mode. “If we got used to enjoying milk and cookies in the afternoon,” she said, “just walking into the house after school would be a cue.”

The most egregious example: popcorn at the movies. “No one even likes it, and yet everybody craves it,” she said. “It’s oversalted, usually stale, and that’s not real butter. But just walking into the movie theater and smelling it makes people want that.”

Pushing it forward

For their part, the researchers would like to see their findings used not only to steer people away from food like movie-theater popcorn, but to enhance other parts of their lives.

“We have all kinds of thoughts about how rituals can help people to enjoy exercising more, recover from an illness or injury and be more creative,” Vohs said, adding that a Tulane University colleague is researching the creativity angle. Wang said their Harvard research team members already have done some work on how ritual can help people grieve the loss of a loved one.

Both Vohs and Wang hope that their findings might lead to the introduction of rituals that help people to eat healthier. Vohs said she would like to see food professionals “start getting people to perform rituals around food that they don’t desire to eat, but know they should eat more.”

Registered dietitian Bea Krinke likes that idea in principle, but she isn’t sure about its practicality.

“I think it’s a jump,” said Krinke, a University of Minnesota School of Public Health adjunct instructor who does the nutrition analyses for the Star Tribune. “My question is, how do we get our culture to some point where food is not so ever-present. ‘Grabbing a bite’ suggests eating on the run, possibly alone. If you can describe rituals that combat eating on the run and grazing all day long, I think you are on the track toward healthier eating.”

And it all could start with a carrot.