The strawberry mousse was delicious. But then — given that it had been created by Ferran Adrià’s famous experimental El Bulli kitchen near Barcelona, Spain — that wasn’t, in itself, astonishing. What was surprising, however, was that diners who ate the same dessert off a white plate found it 10 percent sweeter and 15 percent more intensely-flavoured than those who ate it off a black plate.
But this wasn’t some culinary spectacle of the sort at which experimental chefs, such as Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, excel. Instead, it was a serious scientific test into how a number of senses affect the way we perceive the flavours of our food and drink. The research, led by Prof. Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, is part of a growing body of evidence about how complex sensory factors affect the way in which we enjoy our food and drink — and it looks set to change the future of food.
New research — by cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists — is already having a profound impact on the design of many aspects of eating and drinking; from packaging to Michelin-starred restaurants, supermarkets to crockery. In fact, one of Spence’s key collaborations to date has been with Heston Blumenthal — and their findings have led directly to dishes appearing on the table at The Fat Duck restaurant.
“Our enjoyment of food and drink comes not only from how the taste buds on our tongues perceive its taste and flavour, but also from our sense of smell and what sound the food makes,” says Professor Spence, head of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory. “Not to mention what it looks like.” Our enjoyment of the food or drink can even be enhanced by the appearance of the environment it’s consumed within, he adds, as the diners who ate that delectable strawberry mousse can vouch for.
“One possibility is that it’s connected with perception,” he explains. “In this case, the white plate enhanced the appearance of the colours of the strawberry mousse, so the diners enjoyed it more.” Expectations also seems to play a key role: white plates may be seen by many as higher quality, so the diner automatically expects the food to taste better.
The role of expectations was demonstrated in another test performed by Spence, which involved — admittedly less sophisticated — Walkers crisps. Two varieties were selected: cheese and onion (from the famous blue packet) and salt and vinegar (from the green packet). “These were swapped and put in the wrong packets,” explains Spence. “Yet a surprisingly large number of those who tasted the crisps identified them as the one they had expected to eat, rather than the flavour that they actually consumed.” In another study, participants were given hot chocolate to drink out of a number of differently-coloured cups. Those drinking from an orange cup rated it as having a more intense flavour than any of the other colours.
Colours generally seem to be strongly associated with different tastes. Red is often associated with sweetness (think ripe, lush summer berries), while green is usually linked to sourness (think unripe fruit). It’s even been demonstrated that drinks can be made to taste as much as 10 percent sweeter simply by adding the appropriate amount of food colouring.
Yet researchers have found that colours mean different things to different cultures. For instance, young Britons will associate a clear blue liquid with the taste of raspberry — it makes them think of Gatorade or Slush Puppies, which both have a fruity taste — while in Taiwan the same colour is more commonly associated with mint.
Sound, too, has its role to play, says Spence, who has been collaborating with Heston Blumenthal ‘s Fat Duck kitchen for more than a decade now. In one study, Spence and Blumenthal showed that people rated Heston’s famous bacon and egg ice-cream as tasting significantly more bacony when listening to the sound of bacon sizzling in a pan. In another study, the pair found that diners enjoyed oysters more if consumed while listening to the sound of crashing waves and seagulls flying overhead. That finding even prompted the introduction of the Sound of the Sea dish at the Fat Duck, where the food is accompanied by an iPod to listen to while eating.
But as innovative and fascinating as all these discoveries are, Spence sees a more important role for his findings: to improve our diets. “The hope is that these psychological insights can be harnessed to make food healthier,” he explains. “By reducing salt, sugar and fat, without sacrificing flavour.” The future of food then, looks like it could be taking just as much inspiration from the laboratory as the kitchen — and our waistlines might even thank us for it.