Main photo: Charles Spence. Photo courtesy Sam Frost.

This Food Scientist Can Hack Your Dinner

Experimental psychology professor Charles Spence’s new book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, explores how music, plateware, and theatrics influence the taste of food.

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Apr 21 2017, 10:40am

Main photo: Charles Spence. Photo courtesy Sam Frost.

I'm sitting in the corner of Parlour, a restaurant in London's Kensal Green, with headphones on. The iconic theme song from 2001: A Space Odyssey blasts in my ears and head chef Jesse Dunford Wood rolls foil across the table in front of me. As the track segues into "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wood begins placing macarons, Arctic rolls, soufflés, cakes, and mousses on the foil between artful globs of sauce from a squeezy bottle—all in time with the music.

Sitting to my right and watching Wood's performance is Charles Spence, food scientist and professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. He mimes for me to lift my headphones.

"This is similar to how the Italian Futurists threw dinner parties!" he says excitedly, pointing to the foil, which is now covered with brightly coloured treats and sauce.

But more on Wood's theatrical puddings and European anarchists later. I'm not here just to spoon chocolate mousse from the table, I'm meeting with Spence to talk about his new book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, and discover the science that explains why listening to music, watching a chef throw sauce around, or eating off foil can enhance flavour.

London chef Jesse Dunford Wood serves dessert on tin foil in time with music that plays over diners' headphones, a choreographed performance intended to enhance flavour. All photos by the author.

In the introduction to his book, Spence explains that gastrophysics "can be defined as the scientific study of those factors that influence our multisensory experience while tasting food and drink." Basically, if you take the food away from a dining experience, gastrophysics is how everything else—from descriptions of dishes on the menu and the restaurant's decor to plateware, cutlery, and music—affect our enjoyment of food.

Spence sums it up by writing: Wherever food and drink is served, sold, or consumed there is always a multisensory atmosphere. And that environment impacts both what we think about what we are tasting and, more importantly, how much we enjoy that experience.

Back at Parlour, Spence tells me: "It's a combination of gastronomy and psychophysics, with gastronomy meaning higher end food and drink experiences and dining, and the psychophysics part is the scientific approach to measuring perception. It's about doing as much in restaurants as in the lab to see what actually affects people in the real world."

Wood adds meringue to his multisensory dessert experience.

I suddenly wonder whether Spence was studying my reaction during the dessert performance. Am I the unwitting subject of a gastrophysics experiment?

The scientist gives nothing away and continues: "The research discussed in the book looks at how people taste, plating food for the eye, making meals memorable, and the inclusion of technology at the table. I work with restaurants on all of those things, like with Heston Blumenthal's Sound of the Sea dish at the The Fat Duck [the sound of crashing waves is played to enhance the flavour of seafood] and Jesse's dessert experience."

This could explain why I went back for thirds of Wood's tasty-but-not-life-changing Battenberg.

It's not surprising that Spence has worked with the kind of experimental restaurants that probably make you rub faux fur against your cheek before "eating" your dessert by sniffing it. But his flavour-hacking research, carried out through the Crossmodal Research Laboratory he heads up in Oxford, also affects those of us who can't afford to eat à la Heston.

"It's not just what the chefs in fancy restaurants do. That's interesting but maybe not all that relevant in the grand scheme of things," says Spence. "Some things will percolate down into the mainstream. There are a couple of chain restaurants who are now deliberately choosing their plateware based on my research that shows you can make desserts taste 10-percent sweeter by putting them on a white, round plate rather than a black, angular one."

Even your bar of Dairy Milk isn't safe from Spence's influence.

He continues: "Many food and drink brands are into sonic seasoning—listening to music to enhance taste. Cadbury ran a campaign pairing music with their different chocolate bars. Krug Champagne did it. Lots of products have QR codes that you can scan and get access to content. That will have originated from the chefs that we work with."

I ask whether he's worried about his research forming the basis of gimmicky marketing campaigns.

"Sometimes it's just a marketing story and the science gets lost. There is always the worry that food companies will use it to serve terrible food but make it seem like it's nice. Insights are insights, so who uses it for what is out of our control," he admits. "But I'm not too worried because the research is also used by food and drink companies to make products more healthy."

He adds: "When companies want to reduce unhealthy ingredients, like sugar, they use the research to deliver psychological sweetness. If it's a drink, you might change the shape of the bottle or add some sweet fragrance to the lip."

And while some of Spence's research has benefited the money-making interests of food industry giants, its impact extends beyond flogging chocolate.

"Hospital trusts are starting to take notice. Before they'd say the effect a plate's colour has on flavour is silly. But once we've got the evidence from restaurants where it's been more innovatively done and data has been collected, it's easier to say here's the science, it really does matter."

I want to bring the science even closer to home. How can I use Spence's theories to turn the experience of having friends over for dinner in my tiny, shoebox flat (which smells slightly of damp) into a night they'll never forget?

"It starts with the expectation of the meal and how you name your dish. People won't know it's organic or free range unless you tell them that. The more descriptive the name, the better things people will say," advises Spence. "And music is the easiest thing to enhance food."

Go on …

"Serving food on sharing plates is another really simple one," he says. "The social aspect seems to lead to a positive release of hormones. That'll put your guests in a better mood and those feelings might then be misattributed to the food. Or you could always serve each person a different main course—it's a surprise to people so it'll be memorable, and they have to interact to share it out."

I'm glad to hear I don't have to annoy my flatmates by covering the dining table with tin foil. 

The finished dessert spread, including macarons, Arctic rolls, soufflés, and mousses.

"It actually ends up going back to the Futurists in the 1930s. They made a Futurist cookbook and most of what you see today in restaurants, you'll find in there," says Spence. "One of my favourite earliest examples of technology at the table is Sound of the Sea in 2007 but actually the Futurists used to play the sounds of croaking frogs while eating frogs' legs."

He adds: "But they were more about provocation than making nice tasting food. They were working with chefs but it was more for shock value in response to the traditional."

Food advertisers may use Spence's gastrophysical insights to shock us into buying their products, but if the same theories can be applied to improve food in areas like healthcare (and my dinner parties), then I'm all ears. 

Back on with those headphones.