Can a restaurant actually make you think its food tastes better because of the place settings and ambiance? Can a chocolate company make you think its candy bars are sweeter because they’ve changed shape?
Yes, says Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University, where he’s also a professor of experimental psychology and gastrophysics. Spence has spent his life studying how we perceive the food we eat. He writes about it in his new book, “Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating.”
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Spence about his research — and even participated in an experiment. The following is an edited transcript of their interview.
Kai Ryssdal: The feeling I had when I was reading this book was that, and this is going to sound a little bit pejorative, but that consumers of food, whether in a restaurant or in a snack bar, we’re almost having one put over on us because everybody out there knows more about it than we do, and we’re just eating.
Charles Spence: In a way, we’re going to frame things that way. Certainly, when you hear of, you know, some big, evil chain out there doing things to make us buy more, eat more, shop more, it seems that way. But I think, really, we’re more interested in those chefs who are already delivering great food but want to enhance the experience even further. We’re interested in working with hospitals and old people’s homes, trying to take the scientific insights and use them to help people get better. We’re interested in working with brands, even, who want to kind of reduce, or being told to reduce, some of the unhealthy stuff in the food and drinks that they sell and serve. But realize when they do that, we complain, we say, “Give us back our brand the way it was, we don’t like the new taste.”
Ryssdal: OK. So we’re going to do a little experiment here. We were going to try to get some actual English toffee, but we got as close as we could, which is a Heath bar. Which on the front of it says, “milk chocolate English Toffee bar.” And my producer, Bridget, is going to play some music, and you’re going to tell me why this music works with me eating and talking about, right?
Ryssdal: Mm, crunchy. All right, so why am I listening to Leonard Cohen while I’m eating this?
Spence: So this is the whole new world of sonic seasoning. We all believe — chefs, psychologists, regular diners, food critics alike — that we can just taste what’s on the plate or in our glass. And that we’re not going to be fooled by — oh, there it is, that word.
Ryssdal: There, see?
Spence: — we’re not going to be fooled by the “everything else.” You know, I can read the research. Somebody can tell me that sound will change a taste, but now I just know I can taste what’s in the glass. And yet, if I play that lower-pitched music, it does seem to bring out the more bitter notes in a dish. If I play some tinkling, high-pitched music instead — wind chimes, or high notes on a piano — then that will seem to accentuate the sweetness. This is something that’s already there and your tasting experience. And if I were a wine expert, I could tell you, “Can’t you taste the asparagus? Can’t you taste this?” And suddenly, when I say those words to some people, they say, “Yeah. Oh, yeah, I get it.” It was there all along, but you weren’t really paying attention to it, you couldn’t focus on it.
Ryssdal: This research seems of use to large food companies who have a profit motive on the line and who, we should say, fund a good part of your research, but also the high-end restaurants who have the latitude to experiment, right? Do you see much crossover that winds its way down to the common man?
Spence: Absolutely. I’m seeing, for us, I mean we have worked for two decades with the food and beverage industry, and they fund most of the research that we do. But I think you can take the insights from there, and apply them to the mainstream. So, for example, a cafeteria over in Vietnam … decided to play sweet sounds all the time so that they can add a little bit less sugar to their cakes and pastries, and so hopefully deliver a great tasting experience for their customers, but also with a bit less sugar, which might help in the long term in some small way deal with a growing crisis that we have with obesity.
Ryssdal: Has this research, just on a personal level for you, has it taken all the fun out of going out to eat?
Spence: Not at all, not at all. If you only knew how little Oxford academics get paid, you’d understand that I would never get a chance to go to one of these fancy restaurants on my regular salary. So far, we’ve had, like, three decades of “science-in-the-kitchen” kind of modernist cuisine: molecular gastronomy, spumes and foams, and gels. But we’ve been kind of missing the science of the diner, the mind of the diner, and our enjoyment of food doesn’t happen in our mouth, really. Actually it happens in our mind. And so that’s what we need to understand if you want us to deliver the ultimate meal experience, or even nudge us all towards a slightly healthier, more sustainable food future.
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