When attempting to construct a positive dining experience, often our attention is purely focused on the food we prepare. However, this is just one of the myriad elements constituting a mealtime experience. Eating is a multisensory process. Our perception of a meal is generated from information transmitted to the brain from each of the five senses, which is why we associate certain foods not only with their taste, but with the smell, sight, texture and sound experienced when we eat them.
The importance of satisfying each of these senses is explored through gastrophysics, the interdisciplinary science considering the scientific nature of gastronomy. The term itself comes from the merging of ‘gastronomy’, the practice of choosing, cooking and eating good food with ‘psychophysics’, the scientific study of perception.
Written by Professor Charles Spence, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating
, highlights some fascinating instances of the interplay between food and senses and investigates how restaurateurs, businesses and chefs can use the sensory science to their advantage.
Some of Spence’s findings are more relatable to the reader: that diners correlate the heft of cutlery with the quality of a meal for example. Others are not so obvious. When Cadbury changed the shape of its Dairy Milk bar in 2013 by rounding off the edges, customers complained the chocolate tasted sweeter than before and speculated the recipe had been changed. However, Spence’s research confirms that food served in a rounder shape makes it taste sweeter. He also describes the benefits of seating diners at a round table when sharing dishes such as tapas or mezze; “People are more likely to feel like they belong when seated at a round table than a square one. By contrast, those at an angular table tend to show more selfish traits in group settings.”
Throughout the book, Spence investigates the impact each of the senses has on how we react to food. It has long been claimed that our olfactory receptors, alongside taste, are most responsible for our impression of a meal. However, Spence’s most famous experiment, ‘Sonic Chip’,
proves otherwise. He found that increasing the volume and various frequencies of a crisp’s crunch can make eaters believe they are fresher and crunchier. This experiment was an important step towards understanding how the brain processes information from different inputs to create one multisensory perception. These findings, along with Spence’s countless other experiments, are crucial to understanding how overall dining experiences can be modified and improved.
The hospitality industry has long been aware of the importance of satisfying the senses of their customers. Most restaurants give attention not only to how their food is presented, but control the lighting, music, colour and décor to achieve a certain ambience. Over the past decade, the trend towards experiential dining has seen many restaurants going a step further. Spence has collaborated with several adventurous chefs, including Heston Blumenthal, to create multisensory dining experiences such as Blumenthal’s ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish at The Fat Duck. This elaborate seafood dish is served with an iPod, so that diners can listen to the sound of crashing waves whilst they eat, this said to enhance the taste of the dish.
Restauranteurs are not the only ones to benefit from the principles of gastrophysics however. Food producers and businesses have long been using senses to improve customer experience. A pioneer in this area was Louis Cheskin, an American scientific researcher and clinical psychologist, who coined the term ‘sensation transference’ to describe how one sensation can inform our judgement on other senses. Cheskin’s research and experiments led to the development of the first successful mainstream margarine (by dying it yellow to resemble butter) and found that by making a 7 Up
can more yellow, consumers believed it tasted more like lemon. Cheskin’s approach is enduring and his findings are still widely accepted today.
As our understanding of the power our senses have over the tasting experience grows, there are opportunities to translate this knowledge into positive initiatives across food manufacture, hospitality and even the health and social care sector.
For example, regarding his findings on the impact of a rounded shape on sweetness, Spence speculates; “You can imagine how companies could […] perhaps reduce the sugar content while making the shape rounder. The product itself would be a little less unhealthy, and it’s just possible that the taste wouldn’t change in the mind of the consumer either.”
In terms of the health and social care sector, not only should the findings of gastrophysics encourage care providers and hospital caterers to place great focus on the presentation and overall mealtime environment, they may offer potential support for various medical conditions.
For example, serving food in a rounded shape may help those with diabetes to consume less sugar. For those looking to lose weight, the colour red “tends to elicit avoidance motivation”
, meaning food served on a red plate may help the weight loss process. In his research into how to create lasting food memories, Spence references an intervention he helped develop for early-stage Alzheimer’s/dementia patients who forget to eat. By installing plug-in devices that release the scents of breakfast, lunch and dinner, patients are enticed by the aromas and reminded to cook a meal. “In a small test of the solution, called ‘ode’, fifty people […] used the device for almost three months, the weight of more than half of those who took part either stabilised or increased, leading to an average weight gain of two kilograms.”
The study of gastrophysics and the gradual infiltration of its findings into public and professional knowledge reflect the growing interest in food and drink, a trend only expected to grow in the coming years. The central message of the science: that our eating experiences are generated not only by taste – our five senses, memories, genes and environment are all at play. As our knowledge and understanding of the impact of each of these variables and the relationship between them improves, so too we can look to positively influence the dining experiences of people in all walks and stages of life.
Professor Charles Spence, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating
Professor Charles Spence, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating,