Eating Sour Foods Makes You Take More Risks

If you think drinking lemonade made with charcoal seems a bit of a risk, take a suck on the lemon first and you might feel braver. New Africa/Shutterstock

It's probably best not to make big life decisions after a night drinking margaritas. If the alcohol isn't enough to inspire bad choices, the taste alone could do the trick. In fact, even if you haven't been drinking, but put too much vinegar or lemon juice on your salad, it could make your life as sour as your meal. On the other hand, if you feel your life could do with more adventure, a sour diet could be just the thing you need.

All this advice is based on work published in Scientific Reports by the University of Sussex's Dr Chi Thanh Vi and Dr Marianna Obrist. They had volunteers drink a shot of a randomly allocated liquid and, at a different time, water. After each drink participants played a game pumping air into a computer-simulated balloon.

The game is a standard lab test for risk-taking propensity. The more air participants get into the balloon, the more money they receive, but if the bubble bursts they get nothing. The researchers found that among 168 participants, those allocated the sour drink (citric acid) took significantly more risks than those given the other flavors. The study was done in both the UK and Vietnam to check for culturally specific influences.

Participants who drank sucrose or MSG solutions (sweet or umami tastes) were the least inclined to take risks, adding 40 percent less air than the sour drinkers. Those given caffeine or salt fell roughly halfway between.

The propensity for greater risk-taking after citric acid consumption was independent of individuals' natural predisposition to gambling, or whether they were intuitive or analytical thinkers. Although the test only measured an effect lasting 20 minutes, the authors suspect it may continue substantially longer. Previous research has found risk-taking to be associated with preferring spicy foods.

It is, of course, a jump from being willing to lose a few dollars to letting the last taste you consumed influence the course of your life. A study like this cannot confirm how wide the effect runs. “Risk-taking can mean different things for different people; for some that is jumping out of a plane at 30,000 feet but for others it can be simply leaving the house,” Vi said in a statement. “But while it may have negative connotations for some, risk taking is actually one of the primary behaviours that leads to a happier life”.

The authors admit they don't know what neurological processes link sour experiences with risk, but suggest airlines should avoid giving their pilots sour meals, just to be on the safe side. The paper cites work on the use of lemon oils to treat anxiety, and suggests further study to see whether life giving you lemons is really such a bad thing.

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