In 2001, a panel of 54 wine experts were tricked into reviewing white wine with red food colouring as a red wine. Despite being the same wine, the experts described the flavour of wine very differently, according to its colour. The original white evoked flavours such as honey and lemon, whereas the ‘red’ version evoked chicory and chocolate. You’re wondering, how is this possible?
According to Prof Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, our perception of flavour isn’t as simple as we think. Taste is in fact a “multisensory” perception, in which our sense of sight and smell all contribute. So with this in mind, how does a product’s packaging influence our perception of taste? How does our eating environment affect the flavour of our food? Perhaps more importantly, how can food and drink brands use this research to enhance their consumers’ experience? We spoke to Prof Spence about his research and what implication this has for brands.
Tell us about your research into “the multisensory perception of flavour” – what inspired it and what are some of the key concepts you are exploring?
Well, I have always been interested in the senses. It started with hearing and vision several decades ago and we have slowly been adding other senses to the list we study as the years have gone by. It was around 2000, when we started doing experiments on taste and flavour. However, while we were initially working mostly with the food industry – such as extensively with Unilever – it was when we started to work with Heston Blumenthal and his team in 2003 when the multisensory food and experience design really started to take off. Key areas for our research relate to the impact and design of cutlery, plating, glassware and packaging. They play such a fundamental role in our food experiences and yet are so rarely studied or optimised as perhaps they might. We are also very interested in the impact of artistic plating, and turning the art of visual design, of the food on your plate, or of the design of the packaging into a systematic science – or at the very least being able to provide ideas and theories to help inspire or constrain design. The power of the internet and citizen science-type research is really exciting for us at the moment. The one other area that is huge for us is sonic seasoning – how music and soundscapes can be used to modify the tasting experience – be it of coffee, wine, beer or chocolate.
Does the perception of flavour vary between people of different ages or gender?
Yes, no doubt it does. While one sees changes in liking for sweetness in early development during periods of growth, it is the changes that are happening at the other end of the age spectrum that are more worrying. More of us are living for longer, and into the decades where the declines in the sense of taste and smell become more apparent.
You’ve coined the phrase “gastrophysics” – what does it mean?
Well, it is the combination of gastronomy and psychophysics – gastronomy, the study of higher-end food practices and experiences, and psychophysics, the systematic study of human perception. I see this as different from neurogastronomy, which stresses the study of the brain on flavour. For my colleagues and me, we are inspired by the neuroscience, but are much more interested in studying people’s real-world food behaviours as much as possible. We think of gastrophysics, then, as the new sciences of the table. It is the study of the everything else, it is the study of off-the-plate dining.
Tell us about your work with chef Jozef Youssef and the creation of “Kitchen Theory”. What were you exploring with this project and what did you discover?
I have been lucky enough to work with chef Jozef for a few years now. He is one of the next-generation young chefs, who are for the first time really thinking about how to feed the minds of his diners. Many of the dishes that he has prepared on his various menus have been inspired by the latest findings from gastrophysics. What’s more, we have, on occasion, also been able to test how diners at some of his events respond to the dishes and this feeds into our fundamental research. So, for example, thinking about how to encourage diners to the delights of entomophagy [eating insects], and when assessing the colours and shapes that people associate with different tastes and flavours.
Your research suggests that food packaging also influences taste perception. Why is this?
I think our brains don’t always do such a good job of separating what we think about the food from what we think about the packaging. We nearly always see, hear, feel, and possibly even smell the packaging before we experience the food or beverage product itself. Hence, the multisensory attributes of the packaging play a key role in setting our expectations concerning whatever it is that we are about to taste.
In your opinion, what has been the most interesting breakthrough in your research?
The discovery – or better said, rediscovery – of sonic seasoning has been the most surprising but in many ways also the most interesting.
What does the future hold for the food industry? Will brands be utilising your research to offer consumers “multisensory” experiences?
I believe we are going to see a lot more technology at the table – think eating off tablet computers, adding digital seasoning via your smartphone. I really hope entomophagy takes off and I really look forward to seeing how sonic seasoning develops. I imagine we are also going to see a lot more neuroscience-inspired packaging design.
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