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15 Feb 2018

The New Science of Eating
by Professor Charles Spence



If you have ever bought take-away coffee in a disposable cup and found it does not taste quite as good as when you sit down and drink it in a mug, the reason is this: smell. If you remove the plastic lid, your coffee will taste better.

Our enjoyment of foods and beverages is not based only on the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – a Japanese word that has been translated as ‘yummy deliciousness’ or a pleasant savoury taste); food and beverages are experienced differently because of their smell, sound, sight, touch and how our mind interprets expectations.

In his entertaining book Gastrophysics, Professor Charles Spence leads readers through a fascinating journey of eating and drinking, and what makes food ‘taste’ the way it does. 

Gastrophysics is described as the “scientific study of those factors that influence our multisensory experience while tasting food and drink”. As Spence says: “The pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not the mouth.”

The same meal eaten at a three-star Michelin restaurant will be experienced differently if the meal is served at your dining table at home, or eaten on plastic tables at a cheap looking café. How we ‘taste’ food is as much about the experience of where we taste it.

The experience of dining out in top restaurants affects the way we think of the food consumed. The act of booking and traveling to a ‘fancy’ restaurant, the location, décor, the music played and even the cutlery and plates, are interpreted by the brain in ways that have an impact on ‘taste’ and enjoyment.

For example, Spence explains why restaurants using heavier cutlery actually encourage diners to pay more; and why serving a strawberry mousse on a white dish can increase perceptions of sweetness by 10 per cent compared to serving it on a black dish.

Gastrophysics defines the relationship between food and sound. Research showed that if potato crisps ‘sound’ crunchier, then consumers think they are eating something fresh, so manufacturers made crisps with a crunchier ‘sound’.

Touch is a factor many in the West do not always appreciate, even though we eat many foods – hamburgers, chips, sandwiches, fruit and so on – with our hands.  I once ate at Bukhara in New Delhi, seven times winner of the 'Restaurant Magazine Award' for Best 50 Restaurants in the World and Best in Asia, and awarded the 'Times Food Award' ten times. President Obama, UK PM David Cameron and Vladimir Putin had previously eaten there.

Bukhara has no cutlery. All dishes are eaten by hand. Knowing the quality of the restaurant and who had eaten there changed the perception of the way food tasted. In many other parts of India, eating with your hands would be anathema to foreigners and we would likely worry about hygiene too much to enjoy the stunning food. For the record, Bukhara was one of the greatest meals I’ve experienced. 

Gastrophysics details the science behind expectation. Diners shun Patagonian toothfish but enjoy Chilian sea bass, which are the same. Golden rainbow trout is far more popular than brown trout. What we think we’re eating defines our enjoyment and perceptions of taste. As Spence puts it, there’s a reason why ‘faggots’ (meat off-cuts/offal), ‘pollack’ (fish) and ‘spotted dick’ (pudding) are no longer menu items.

This also explains why a simple ‘pasta salad’ sounds boring, but diners in expensive restaurants will pay high prices for ‘Neapolitan pasta with crispy fresh organic garden salad’.

There are many examples throughout the book of research into wine and food showing that few people are supertasters who possess the ability to detect bitterness, saltiness, sweetness and other textures. At the other end are people who have ‘anosmia’ and are unable to detect distinctive flavours, such as coriander.

Many people cannot really tell the differences in wines. The mind reacts to price, location and label. So we think a $90 bottle of red at a top eatery is much better than the $15 bottle at the local club. In reality, they could be the same wine, but few of us know the difference.

Smell is also vital to the dining experience. It is the smell of freshly ground coffee which is so appealing to coffee drinkers. But when the barista puts a plastic lid on that take-away coffee, it reduces the smell (the ‘orthonasal aroma’) and therefore the taste. The same applies to drinking from a bottle or can.

The chapter on airline food is particularly interesting, as Spence explains how aircraft noise affects our perception of food. The answer is simple - wearing noise-cancelling headphones has been shown to improve the taste of airline food!

Published: 15 Feb 2018