The study conducted by Richa Gupta from University of Nashville and colleagues has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
The research team conducted a series of studies that examined the symbolic meaning of foods and beverages.
They found that when it came to tasting meat or soft drinks, what influenced participants was what they thought they had eaten rather than what they actually ate.
The team notes that meat has an association with social power, and people who scored high in the authors' Social Power Value Endorsement measure believed that a meat-containing item tasted better than a vegetarian alternative, even when both products were actually identical (one was mis-represented).
Similarly, participants who supported the values symbolized by Pepsi (Exciting Life, Social Power, and Recognition) gave a more favorable rating to the product they thought was Pepsi-even though they were drinking the low-price Woolworth cola.
Participants were told that they would taste either a beef sausage roll or a vegetarian alternative roll, and that they would drink either a Pepsi or a Woolworth Homebrand cola.
Some received the item they were told they would receive and some were given the similar-tasting item. Then they filled out a questionnaire about values and taste, along with their current food and soft drink consumption.
"Our present findings may have implications for efforts to promote better eating habits. Heavy meat eaters claim that they eat meat because it tastes better than other foods, such as meat substitutes," the researchers said.
"Our results challenge that claim. Participants who ate the vegetarian alternative did not rate the taste and aroma less favorably than those who ate the beef product.
"Instead, what influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported ... strategies that might persuade heavy meat eaters to change their diet include changing the cultural associations of fruits and vegetables to encompass values that meat eaters endorse (e.g., power and strength), or challenging heavy meat eaters' assumptions about what tastes good by using in-store (blind) taste tests or showing them results of studies such as this one," they added.