It's more than just taste: The new science of eating

Pink food, like these iced donuts, tastes sweeter.

Pink food, like these iced donuts, tastes sweeter.

The "pleasures of the table", according to Oxford University gastrophysics researcher Professor Charles Spence, reside in the mind, not in the mouth.

We all know that eating is not just about taste. It's about the way something looks, smells, and is presented on the plate that improves (or degrades) our quality perception of what we're chewing.

Gastrophysics, a new and experimental science, pulls in several different disciplines such as physics, chemistry, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, marketing, and design.

In essence, it can be defined as the study of the factors that influence our multi-sensory experience while eating and drinking.

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Professor Charles Spence.
Sam Frost

Professor Charles Spence.

This means everything from the size of your plate to ambient lighting will actually change what your taste buds are experiencing.

"Wherever we eat or drink, there is always an atmosphere or ambiance," says Spence, a psychologist and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating. "If one goes back to the 1970's, then there was the 'white cube' mentality – all those chefs serving the great food who would serve their dishes in a white-walled environment with no pictures, no music, just the food. But note how even this neutral environment sets certain expectations in the mind of the diner.

"Nowadays, all those organic, seasonal, free-range, fresh and natural restaurants – you know the ones – with the baskets of fruits and vegetables scattered in the window and perhaps on the floor, are also using the atmosphere to get you to think differently about the food.

"At the high-end of modernist cuisine, one sees the top chefs changing the lighting, the projections, and even the soundscape/music on a course-by-course basis to enhance the multi-sensory tasting experience of those they serve."

This "crossmodal" investigation, as Spence calls it, aims to find out the ways in which our senses intermingle, thus letting our brains fuse shapes, textures, colours, and sounds with our conception of taste.

Heston Blumenthal, television chef extraordinaire, proprietor of three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck, and gastrophysics enthusiast, is the world's most well known example of this science put into commercial practice. Blumenthal has been working with Spence since 2004; the first research undertaken was to assess how the sounds of the ocean influenced the taste of seafood.

The idea of gastrophysics can actually be traced back at least 80 years, however.

The crunchier the potato chip, the tastier it seems.

The crunchier the potato chip, the tastier it seems.

"If one goes back to the 1930's, one finds many of the whacky ideas playing out in modernist cuisine or molecular mixology – call it what you will – being suggested by the Italian futurists," Spence explains. "Everywhere from Turin to Tunisia, the futurists were holding the most multi-sensory of dinner parties. Back then, they were encouraging their diners to eat frog's legs while listening to the sound of croaking frogs."

Such historical instances clearly influenced the first Blumenthal experiment with seafood – which, at The Fat Duck, now results in a small plate of sashimi accompanied by a seashell connected to a pair of headphones.

Today, gastrophysics continues to develop. "What has changed today is that it is some of the world's top chefs who have realised that it is not enough merely to optimise the presentation of what is on the plate," says Spence. "They need to think about 'the everything else': the total multi-sensory atmosphere, the feel of the cutlery, the material properties and appearance of the plateware... what some refer to as 'off the plate' dining."

The noise heard while eating at a restaurant is an easy example to understand. "The louder and faster the music, the more we will eat and drink," says Spence.

The sound of the food as you chew it also influences what you taste. "Many of the food properties that we all find highly desirable – think crispy, crackly, crunchy, carbonated, creamy, and of course, squeaky (like halloumi cheese) – depend, at least in part, on what we hear," Spence explains.

His most proliferative research to date, the "sonic crisp", won the Ig Nobel Prize for improbable research. Spence's finding here was simple: potato crisps taste better when their crunch is louder. In fact, increasing the volume of biting into a crisp leads people to believe it's 15 per cent fresher and crunchier.

In other research by Spence and his colleagues at Oxford University, it has been demonstrated that people who eat with heavier cutlery enjoy what they are eating more than those who eat with plastic cutlery.

"Intuitively, this is something that many people say that they knew already, but we were able to demonstrate this scientifically for the first time," says Spence. "Using heavy cutlery won't necessarily make your mother-in law's cooking taste great but it can help nudge all of our food experiences in the right direction."

The size and shape of your food's serving receptacle is an area closely researched too. "Serving the same pinkish-red strawberry mousse off a white plate will make it taste sweeter than when exactly the same dessert is served off a black plate," says Spence. "Serving food off a smaller plate will make it look like there is more. Serve snack foods on red plates and people will end up eating less."

Big plates make food portions seem smaller. Small plates have the opposite effect.

Big plates make food portions seem smaller. Small plates have the opposite effect.

Here, gastrophysics also surmises the colour of food itself and its influence on taste. "Colour can be used to modify people's perception of a taste that is already present in the mouth," Spence explains. noting how he can make food or drink taste sweeter by adding pink colouring to it, because of the brain's association between that colour and a sugary taste. "But, as yet, I haven't come across a way to do that while service someone a glass of water." As such, the emerging science of gastrophysics – impressive as it is – is still a long way away from turning water into wine.

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This kind of scientific approach is something very high-end eateries like to employ, but can the average home chef incorporate it? "There are a lot of simple 'sensory nudges' that any one of us could use at home," Spence says.

"One of my personal favourites is the idea that we can all make food taste a little better by eating with heavier cutlery," he adds.

Further, gastrophysics can even be used in the weight loss game. "Everything from serving food from a smaller plate (or a bowl without a rim) in order to trick the diner's mind into thinking that there is more food, through to serving unhealthy snack foods from a red plate [can be done at home], as numerous studies now show that it will encourage us to eat less."

 - Your Weekend


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