04 August 2017

Gastrophysics: the new science of eating

I was trained as an economist and although we work with "preferences" we tend to think of consumption behaviour being driven by prices, income, gender based rules and convenience, with preferences relatively fixed.

So it is refreshing to read Charles Spence's book: Gastrophysics: The new science of eating because it focuses on pretty much everything else that drives preferences and choices.

Spence is a Professor at Oxford University's Crossmodal Research Laboratory.  Crossmodal because his team examines how different senses connect with each other (e.g. when someone puts on red lighting and suddenly the red wine in your black glass tastes sweeter). He is an experimental psychologist and he has defined the term gastrophysics as "the factors that affect our multi sensory experience while tasting food and drink".  Watch an interview with him here.

For instance:

* Sound: when a potato crisp makes a louder crunch, it enhances perceptions of freshness
* Sight: crab flavoured ice cream that is pink will not work in the Western world because the colour pink is associated with sweetness
* Name: the real name for the popular Chilean sea bass is Patagonian tooth fish (not too many people will order that)
* Expectations: "Pasta salad" does not sound as healthy as "salad with pasta"
* Atmosphere (literally): 27% of drinks bought on airplanes are tomato juice because its flavour is strong enough to survive the sensory dimming effects of high altitude and loud noise
* Labelling: using phoney farms in the labelling of foods (e.g. Rosedene and Nightingale) makes consumers feel the food is healthier
* Shapes: customers were convinced that a famous brand of chocolate had become more sweet when the corners of the blocks became more rounded.  The formula had stayed the same but people associated smooth corners with sweetness.
* Silence is golden: labelling a product lower in sugar or fat --when it it really has been lowered--is a risky business for companies because it might make consumers taste it differently
* People: we all live in our different taste worlds, some are "super tasters" with 16 times as many papillae on the front of their tongues as the rest of us.
* Smell: a rose oil soaked sugar cube in a glass of sparkling water or champagne, transports you to a rose garden
* Shapes: beer labels tend to have sharp angular logos connoting bitterness
* Colour: using blue plates in hospitals increases the consumption of food because bland hospital food tends to look even blander against white plates
* Orientation: the rotation of the plate matters (we tend to prefer food in pyramids)
* Motion: yolks, oozing chocolate, juice flowing into a glass (all imply freshness)
* Look: the more beautiful a source of food tends to look, the less aromatic it tends to be (ugly fruit lovers take note)
* Sound: the sounds that coffee machines make affects the taste of the coffee made
* Touch: "the first taste is with the hands" -- what do the eating implements feel like? (Textured spoons anyone?)
* Touch: are hamburgers more popular because we eat them with our hands and not with sharp, cold metallic objects being inserted into our mouths?
* Sound: accompanying music must not be too loud, and it can stimulate preferences for certain kinds of food (accordions for French music etc)
* Social: the tapas-isation of eating--sharing can enhance flavour

So what has all this to do with making the world more well nourished?   For me, these are the takeaways (no pun intended):

1. I don't hear the words flavour, desirability, cravings or delicious at many nutrition meetings or events.  We need to talk about these attributes and dimensions if we want to create a greater demand for healthy foods

2. Many of the examples in the book are from Europe and North America, but as Spence notes this is just a reflection of where the research has been conducted to date--the approach is likely to be universally useful, although of course it needs adapting to context.

3. Changing some of the drivers of consumption are not necessarily expensive.  Colours, shapes, names.  We just need to clue into the psychology of eating.

4. Businesses are better than the public sector at this type of gastrophysics research (I suspect) and when they invest in it, little will ever make it into the public domain.  We need to find ways of working with them to get more of it geared towards healthy eating and into a shareable space.

Just as nutrition is not only about food, food is not only about nutrients.  It is about eating.  Getting people to eat differently is not easy.  This new science promises to give us a few more tools and ideas to do so.  Let's be open to it and not just dismiss it as fluff (pink coloured, of course).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and cool research, thanks for your summary and takeaways!
I often wondered whether more people would eat vegetarian dishes if they were not marked vegetarian, not listed in a separate section of the menu, etc. for example.

My other thought is how to make healthy eating "cool". Not helathy, not environmentally friendly, not the right thing to do, not cheaper, not yummy, but cool (and all the other). That might be the best way to appeal to youth.