Neurogastronomy: “We see it, we hear it, we smell it, we taste it, we feel it”.
* Article by Lucy Hooker, BBC News, April 15th, 2014
Photo credit: BBC News, ThinkStock
What can you taste when you swirl a mouthful of malt whisky around your mouth? Peaty flavours, honey, sea salt? Talk to any whisky drinker and they’ll be happy to discuss at length.
But it turns out that not all you are getting is down to your taste buds – or even your nose.
If you drink a glass of single malt in a room carpeted with real grass, accompanied by the sound of a lawnmower and birds chirping, and all bathed in green light, the whisky tastes “grassier”.
Replace that with red lighting, curved and bulbous edges and tinkling bells and the drink tastes sweeter.
Best of all, creaking floorboards, the sound of a crackling fire and a double bass bring out the woody notes and give you the most pleasurable whisky experience.
That’s all according to an experiment run for drinks giant Diageo – an experiment in a new field that is fascinating the food and drink industry.
This new discipline has been labelled “neurogastronomy” by its best-known apostle, Prof Charles Spence, who runs the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University.
“Neurogastronomy is based on the realisation that everything we eat or drink is processed by our senses,” he says.
“We see it, we hear it, we smell it, we taste it, we feel it. All those senses come together.”
He advises experimental chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who first introduced the idea of listening to the sounds of the seaside to enhance the flavours of a seafood dish.
Prof Spence found he could skew diners’ perceptions of Heston’s famous egg and bacon ice cream, by first playing chicken sounds and then the sound of sizzling rashers.
Would this dessert taste any different…if it were served on a black plate?
With world-renowned Spanish chef, Ferran Adria, he focused on the colour of the crockery.
Guests sat down one side of a large table were given a pink strawberry dessert on a white plate. Down the other side of the table guests ate an identical dessert from a black plate.
Those eating from the white plates rated the dessert as 10% sweeter than those who ate from the black plates.
Subsequent experiments have shown that introducing a square or angular plate intensifies the difference, with roundness accentuating sweetness.
At Nestle’s research centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, scientists showed people pictures of high calorie foods like pizza and pastry.
They found the testers then enjoyed the subsequent taste of a new food much more than when they had been primed with pictures of watermelon or green beans.
“We are beginning to learn about these things,” says Johannes Le Coutre, a perception physiologist with Nestle.
“We don’t know necessarily what will come out at that end, but clearly contextual perception is a big opportunity.”
Nestle has also played around with the shape of chocolate and found that, too, can affect its flavour.
Based on something they call “mouth geometry”, a curved piece of chocolate has been shown to melt in the mouth better and to release different flavours.
“The entire idea is to say we have individual pieces that fit more snugly onto the tongue,” says Johannes.
“And the idea is that if you have a chocolate like that you positively influence flavour release.”
Confectionary rival Cadbury learned this lesson the hard way.
Two years ago it changed the shape of Dairy Milk bars from the original angular chunks to more rounded shapes to encourage them to melt in the mouth.
However, the firm was then barraged with complaints from consumers who believed it had changed the recipe.