Eating: a multisensory experience
Scientists are discovering ways to enhance our enjoyment of food by looking at how our brains and bodies experience eating. So what exactly is involved, and what makes eating so satisfying?
Research into the various senses involved in eating has resulted in some interesting culinary experiences over the years. From Heston Blumenthal’s aroma sprays to dining-in-the-dark restaurants, the industry has certainly had fun exploring this area further.
Even without the gimmicks, the intricate sequence of stimuli that occurs when we eat is easy to see. Let’s take the humble chocolate bar; from the moment we hear the packet rustling to the satisfying melt in the mouth texture, each of our senses are appeased. According to Professor Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses, our senses are interacting and modulating one another: “It’s actually one of the more complicated things the brain has to do, to put all this together.”
Sight and smell
Our first impressions of food are generally captured by sight, and we rarely eat anything that doesn’t meet our rigorous aesthetic standards. We use our sight to check there are no faults with the food we are about to eat and to check everything looks edible. Not only this, but our sight actually carries more weight in our brains than taste – so often we are tasting what we see, rather than what we are really tasting.
The smell of food is easily confused with taste and can actually determine how something will taste once it reaches your mouth. An example of this can be seen when vanilla is added to foods. Westerners associate the smell of vanilla with sweetness so much that when it is added to a dish, we’ll think it is sweeter than it actually is.
When we put food into our mouths a combination of taste, touch and smell all combine to produce a ‘unique flavour experience’. For example, the definitive traits of something menthol flavour are a minty smell, bitter taste and cooling sensation in the mouth.
There are even certain tastes that aren’t really tastes at all. When you take a shot of alcohol or eat a spicy curry, the sensations or ‘kicks’ you experience are actually irritations, not tastes.
The texture of food is the easiest sensation to isolate, but its role in our perception of flavour is less so. A creamy dish, for example, is usually experienced as sweet even if there are no sugars present. It is also thought that the smell of foods can influence how creamy we think a dish is as the two parts of the brain dealing with aroma and texture are connected.
The importance of noise when eating crunchy snacks was highlighted in 2008 when a study showed that people tasted ‘stale’ crisps when they were less crunchy, even though the taste was the same as fresh crisps. The study also revealed that when crunching sounds were magnified when eating the crisps, the subjects perceived the crisps as fresher.
If you are interested in the way we eat and the nutritional benefits of certain foods, speaking to a nutritionist may help. For more information on topics nutritionists deal with, please see our Nutrition Topics page.
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