What makes your favorite food your favorite? It all boils down to science (WTOP's Rachel Nania)
WASHINGTON — Taste isn’t the only thing that determines what you choose to eat, whether you like it and how much of it you consume.
Everything from the way food looks on the plate to how it sounds in a package can play a role in the way we eat. In his new book, “ Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating,” University of Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence breaks down some fascinating facts about food.
Here are the highlights:
Crash course: Gastrophysics 101
If you haven’t heard of “gastrophysics,” you’re not alone. Spence explains the term is a relatively recent one given to the new science of eating.
“It shifts the focus of research and our way of thinking away from what’s going on in the kitchen — the science of ingredients and cooking — and thinks a bit more about the science of the mind of the person doing the eating or drinking.”
These factors — which may include the people with whom you’re eating, the lighting in the restaurant or the shape of the plate — are the real drivers behind how one perceives the taste of food, Spence says. After all, the only feedback from taste buds is whether something is salty, sweet, bitter or sour.
“The real pleasure of food — that comes from what’s going on in your head as your brain combines the taste buds, the smell from your nose, the sight of food and the expectations that might have given rise to the crunch in your ear and the feel of the food or cutlery in your hands,” Spence added.
Smaller dinner party, smaller waistline
If you’re watching your food intake, you might want to skip the dinner party with friends and opt for a table-for-one.
“For every extra person at the dining table, we tend to eat more,” Spence said.
The research does depend on who you’re with and whether you’re trying to impress your companions, but when seated at a table of seven, Spence says you end up eating twice as much as when you dine alone.
There are a number of reasons why more calories are consumed when in the presence of others. Chances are, when you’re with your friends, you’re in a good mood, which Spence says could cause you to eat more.
“Also, it may be the distraction of the conversation might take your mind off what you’re eating,” Spence added.
Want to cut down on sugar? Eat dessert on a white, round plate.
In his research, Spence asked people to match particular tastes with corresponding shapes. What he found was that the majority of participants matched sweetness with roundness and bitterness and sourness with angularity.
Spence took that information and tested a strawberry mousse on white and black plates, both round and angular in shape.
“We found that those eating from the round and white plates said the dessert tasted sweeter, they liked it more, it was more flavorful than exactly the same dessert served on exactly the same day in exactly the same place [from the black plates],” Spence said.
Those who ate the dessert off a black, angular plate reported even more of a reduction in sweetness.
“It’s almost as if the plate sort of primes the notion of sweetness in our mind, and then when we taste the dessert, we’re expecting something that’s going to be a little bit sweeter,” Spence said.
If you’re trying to cut down on your snacking, try eating your chips off a red plate.
“That seems to trigger some kind of avoidance motivation in people, and, hence, they end up snacking less than they would if exactly the same food is presented to them on a different colored plate,” Spence said.
“It’s kind of a subtle sensory nudge that may help all of us to move to a slightly better place in terms of what we consume without spending all of the time being hungry.”
Is your fork fudging with your food?
Is there any item more boring than a fork? Spence is hard-pressed to find one.
“Cold, hard, smooth stainless steel or silver — no innovation,” he said.
And its dullness could be hampering your dining experience. However, chefs are starting to take note, even experimenting with dishes that don’t require cutlery.
Spence says Copenhagen’s famous Michelin-starred restaurant NOMA recently served three courses of finger foods on its tasting menu. Not long ago, Mugaritz, in San Sebastian, Spain, served 25 courses without utensils.
“It is a different way of eating, and the question is, ‘Does it make food taste better?’ I think it probably does, so how do we design things differently as a result?”
Spence adds that many cultures around the world don’t use forks, knives and spoons to eat their daily meals, and find that when they assimilate into a culture where cutlery is customary, they don’t enjoy the food as much.
“We do taste with our fingers in a way; we set expectations by what we feel,” Spence said.
“The way we move food from plate to mouth is part of the experience, and it can be done differently.”
Your obsession with food porn could cause some unhealthy habits
No matter where you turn, you’re likely to spot it: that perfectly styled picture of a friend’s indulgent dinner on Instagram, or a colorful video showing a quick and mess-free way to make a nostalgic treat.
Food porn is all the rage and while it might be entertaining for your eyes, it could be dangerous for your waistline. Just looking at images of food increases hunger, Spence writes. In fact, those who watch more food TV have a higher body mass index than those who don’t.
The rise of food media is also putting an unhealthy amount of pressure on food industry professionals. Spence says more restaurants are seeing an influx of customers who come in, hold up an image on social media and demand the same perfectly crafted dish.
“I think things that look beautiful do taste better, on average,” Spence said. “But there’s also kind of a slight worry that maybe some people out there might end up going a bit too far and thinking only about the eye appeal of a dish and neglect the fundamentals of taste and flavor and what makes things delicious.”
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Chris Pizzello)
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Chris Pizzello)
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