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Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating – Book Review, Notes and Key Take-aways

Gastrophysics by Charles Spence

The science behind a good meal: all the sounds, sights, and tastes that make us like what we’re eating and want to eat more.

Gastrophysics by Charles Spence

The Book in 4 Points

  1. There are more factors than flavour alone that affect the “taste” of your foods.
  2. At the end of the day you can’t beat good solid cooking. You can decorate a cake to be a piece of art but if it is burnt then it doesn’t taste good.
  3. Research and development departments should be weary of their results as they can be altered by research environments. The key is to test foods in different environments. After all the cutlery you use alone can make a huge different.
  4. You can eat healthier and more satisfied by tricking your brain to consume less

Impressions

As a reader who studies fundamental science I found this book quite interesting as it made me hyperaware about the number of factors that affect a meal. In a way I aware of number of ways which were possible but this put it into practice by providing evidence. I do bring a bit of skepticism to the book in how “true” these studies can be as they do not address how cross cultural these tests are. It would be interesting to consider how much of our eating habits change over time.

Who Should Read It?

I think this book should be read by any one interested in the culinary sciences or want to improve the flavours of the foods they eat. If you enjoyed Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking then this book would definitely be something that you are interested in. The book reads a lot like a series of blog posts so if you are interested in a certain topic it is easy to pick-up. If you want insights into making simple changes that you can do to improve your diner’s experience then this is book for you.

My Top 3 Quotes

  • “Back in 2013, Cadbury decided to update the shape of the iconic Dairy Milk chocolate bar by rounding off the corners, reducing the weight of the chocolate by a few grams in the process. Consumers wrote in and called in droves to complain. They were convinced that the company had changed the formula—that theirfavorite chocolate now tasted sweeter and creamier than before. But a spokesperson from Mondelez International (the American owner of Cadbury) stated: “We have been very clear and consistent that we have not changed the recipe of the much-loved Cadbury Dairy Milk, although it’s certainly true that we changed the chunk last year from the old, angular shape to one that’s curved.”
  • “We eat with our eyes, ears, nose, memory, imagination and our gut,”
  • “What it comes down to is: you don’t have to like something for you to enjoy it or, in other words, pleasure is not only found in the mouth. Predisposition, the ability to concentrate—the impulsive mechanisms of the brain—can completely modify the perception of something that, at first sight, would not even be considered food for humans. In the end, it isn’t only about eating; it’s also about discovering. We take advantage of the fact that we are always on the borderline between our conservative selves— the part that makes us creatures of habit, finding shelter and security in repetition—and our curious, and daring, selves, which seek pleasure in the unknown, in the vertigo we feel when we try something for the first time, in risk and the unpredictability.”

Summary + Notes

1. The key to a good meal is managing expectations

It’s important to manage expectations of food because if diners have expectations before it begins and they don’t match this can be a disaster.

Case: Heston Blumenthal created a savoury salmon flavoured ice cream which was a pale pink colour. Diners thought they were going to taste something sweet but it ended up being savoury. They did not enjoy the surprise!

Research suggests that our first exposure to a flavour affects what comes after. Think mint or matcha flavoured iced cream. If you want to play a trick on diners you can by creating something visually different then what you plan to serve. However, this can be to your determinant.

When it comes to product development labels also change our expectations. Taste tests can be flawed because normally you already know about what you are going to eat before eating it.

2. Smell isn’t as straight forward as you would believe

How we perceive smells:

  1. Orthonasal- external aroma’s from environment
  2. Retronasal- Aromatic odours are pulsed out the back of the mouth into the nose

For example, consider Vanilla. If I asked you how it smells would you say sweet? Well how can something “smell” sweet when sweetness is a flavour. Instead we are associating it with other things. Many food companies add vanilla flavouring to bring out sweetness because at very cold temperatures your taste buds no longer taste sweetness- but you can smell it.

You will enjoy drinks more if you drink them from an open container. When you drink liquids such as beer, wine and soda from a closed top then you are preventing the volatile molecules from entering your nose. That’s why glasses are designed to have a larger head space so you can smell them while drinking them.

If you want to enjoy the true experience of a beverage then pour it into a glass.

3. You can taste shapes and colours

You might ask how is that possible? The human brain is quite odd in how it experiences the world.

Colours

If you change the colour of something then you can also change the perceptions of things already in someone’s mouth. For example, you can make food or drink taste sweeter by adding a pinkish-red colour to it. Side-by-side tests show that people will sometimes rate an appropriately coloured drink (imagine a pinkish-red drink) as sweeter than an inappropriately (say, green) comparison drink. You can even add 10% more added sugar and they will say that the pinkish one is sweeter!

Shapes

We associate certain foods with certain textures. If you look at a shape with smooth corners like a bubble or circle than the texture of the food will also be perceived as smoother. People associate shapes like stars with carbonated, bitter, salty and sour-tasting. This is best exemplified with Mondelez when in 2013 Cadbury decided to update the shape of the iconic Dairy Milk bar by rounding off corners, reducing the weight by a few grams. People actually wrote in and complained because they thought they had actually changed the formulation!

Can companies decrease the amount of sugar in their products just by changing the shape…?

4. Open your ears to crunchier foods

This one didn’t surprise me as much as the other gastrophysics facts but actually hearing something loud can allow you to perceive foods as crunchier then they actually are. So if you are sad about your soft potato chips then put on a set of head phones and listen to some crunching noises – or you can just crinkle the potato chip bags. It isn’t just a coincidence about why these bags are so loud (100 decibels – the same as a restaurant!)

5. Make your food taste better by using heavier utensils

Want to instantly make your food seem tastier and more expensive?

Then just use a heavier set of utensils! Crossmodal Research Laboratory demonstrated that if people tasted food with a heavier spoon they generally had better things to say about it when exactly the same food was eaten with a lighter spoon instead.

Though don’t do the same if you are eating messier foods… There is a reason why we don’t eat certain foods with out hands- think hamburgers. You have a more enhanced sensations and for some reason people think that it just tastes better. I think that it is because people are able to draw down their guard allowing them to be more vunerable and just appreciate the foods. There is of course no scientific basis but it is just my guess.

6. Your environment is critical in how you perceive foods

Even the colour of the room that you are in actually affects how you perceive foods. Wine tasted for example was tested under different light conditions was found to bring out different notes. Green lights brought out the fresher tastes in the glass. No matter how much scientists like to control things you can never fully avoid atmospheric effects on your foods.

7. How much you eat is dictated by those around you

More than ever people are eating by themselves. On the surface this doesn’t seem like it should affect our eating habits but they do. Those that eat by themselves tend to engage in poorer food habits as there are no eye upon you. In a hospital setting this is exasperated even more as many older individuals who find themselves in the hospital or long term care also suffer from under-nutrition. Some research studies have shown that elderly hospitalized patients who end up consuming significantly more food when they are encouraged to engage in more active interpersonal behaviour with their caregivers.

8. Food tastes different on a plane

I must admit I have never actually consumed airline food but I know that many people have! When you are flying 30% of flavour is lost. This loss is a result of planes being pressurized which decreases the number of volatile molecules. Additionally, the lower humidity also affects the taste. I wonder how food scientists actually do sensory tests for testing meals in the air…?

9. The key to creating a meal that is better remembered is by focusing on parts

Unfortunately, people are going to remember the theatrics of your meal more then your actual meal.

Think about your favourite meal could you actually remember the taste in exact detail to someone else. Likely your couldn’t.

It is just the mind of people in that we tend to forget major details even to our favourite meals. There is more of a focus on super highs and lows while the duration in the meal is neglected. So how do you increase the chances of remembering a meal? While by focusing on the theatrics around the meal such how the dish was presented or who was around the meal.

A good tip is to spice up your next dinner party is by delivering an unexpected gift. The memory is more likely to stick.

Alternatively: Create memorable story around the diners. For example, a meal associated with a trip around the farm.

9. People like to feel special

People will respond differently to products that are associated with themselves. Think Starbucks and writing your name on the side of the cup. When Coke did it’s Share a Coke with campaign it was so successful that it improved their sales.

Did you know that people generally find their food better tasting if they made it themselves? Marketers have deemed this effect the “Ikea Effect” because people who assemble their own furniture worth more than if it came pre-built. So if you want your friends to find food that tastes better then maybe consider having them help prepare the food.

10. You can trick yourself to eat healthier

At the end of the book the author makes some key suggestions on how to eat healthier by tricking your brain. Some of the tips that they provide include:

  1. Eat less
  2. Eat from smaller plates
  3. The more food sensations that you can muster the more likely your brain will feel that you had enough. Use the use of smell (inhale more aromas), taste (try to have lots of flavour notes), textures (crunchy, smooth)
  4. Make it difficult to consume the food. Out of sight, out of mind.

Author: Veronica Hislop is a PhD Candidate in the Molecular Science program at Ryerson University. She is also a career partner with FoodGrads and has work experience in the food processing industry working both in R&D and QA.

Currently, she is performing research on water-in-oil emulsions stabilized by fat crystals. When she is not following her scientific endeavors you can find her enjoying Japanese anime, manga and video games.

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