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Gastrophysics by Prof. Charles Spence: It's Protein in Motion

SultanaBun By SultanaBun Published on March 14, 2017
This article was updated on April 3, 2017
‘The pleasures of the table reside in the mind, not in the mouth. Get that straight and it soon becomes clear why cooking, no matter how exquisitely executed, can only take you so far.’

Gastrophysics can be defined as the scientific study of all the factors that influence our multi-sensory experience while tasting food and drink. Professor Charles Spence is an experimental psychologist who has been researching the multi-sensory experience at his Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford since 1997. The term multi-sensory is used to describe the way your brain integrates information from different senses. Crossmodal indicates that the experience from one sense influences the perceived experience of another sense. Phew, that’s the science bit out of the way.

This book, written by and large in layman’s terms and adopting the jocular style of dinner table badinage, lays out a tempting overview of Spence’s fascinating discoveries.

I bet you’re sceptical. Let’s look at a simple example.

Imagine you are tucking in to a bowl of crisps (potato chips-same thing). They come in all sorts of crazy flavours, generally salty, but the most crucial thing about a crisp is that it is exactly that, crisp. But here’s the thing, we don’t taste crispiness. We hear it. The sound is conveyed through our jawbones to our ears giving us the perceived sensation of feeling it in our mouths. Spence has demonstrated that, if the sound of crunching is enhanced through headphones, the crisp-eater will report that the crisps are crunchier, fresher and even tastier. What’s more, at a very loud party all the crisps seem fresh because we expect them to be and our brain fills in the sound that the blaring music, we assume, has drowned out. Even more fascinating than that: the louder the sound made by the crisp packet, the crispier and fresher the consumer reports the crisp.

That is pretty amazing but I was led to wonder why we can be so easily fooled.

As Spence explains, one of the brain’s primary functions is to assess the food on offer. Before ever we raise a piece of food to our lips, the brain has assessed its nutritional quality, the potential danger of poisoning and how we expect the food to taste. We learn through experience, we recognise patterns and, it turns out, we are very good at it.

Just to whet your appetite, here are a few tidbits from the book.

The taste of sweetness is enhanced by listening to tinkly, high-pitched music like tracks 6/7 of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Decide for yourself if you think the added sweetness is worth it. Water tastes sweeter when you’re thinking about love. Wine tastes fruitier and sweeter when consumed under a red light and the depth of a decent Malbec will be enhanced by drinking it while listening to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

But watch out; shoppers can be swayed towards buying, for example, French wine by playing French music over the shop’s sound system. Most shoppers will claim not to have even registered what music was playing let alone being aware of its influence. Beyond that, the average price of wine chosen by shoppers was significantly higher when the music played was classical.

Pinkish-red colours usually indicate something sweet. You don’t need me to tell you that the pinker rhubarb is sweeter.

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You’ll hardly be surprised if I tell you that the pink colour in shop-bought desserts is usually enhanced. If it looks pink we actually do believe that the product tastes sweeter—our expectation informs our experience. Spence suggests that this sort of knowledge may be used to improve our eating habits. For example, the pink dessert requires less sugar, just as long as you don’t print the words ‘less sugar’ on the label.

Here’s a gem for anyone hoping to garner a few more Instagram followers. What people most want to see in your picture is this: protein in motion. We are, it seems, hard-wired to react instinctively to a moving (implying alive and therefore fresh)source of protein. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a live animal although I am now re-thinking the many occasions when I slowed my car to excitedly draw my children’s attention to sweet lambs or fluffy bunnies at play in the fields.

All it takes to get our brains firing and our glands salivating is a voluptuously melting piece of cheese or a bright runny egg. We are even more pleased when we see our moving protein cooked (more easily digestible), facing towards us (no bothersome competition), balanced with a carb source and accessorized with a useful tool for eating.

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I found this book fascinating but somewhat disheartening. There is no getting away from the fact that research carried out by Spence and other scientists is driven more by market forces than a desire to enhance our taste experience. On the other hand, it would be naive to think that small-scale artisan producers are relying on the quality of their product alone. They are equally likely to manipulate our expectations with environmentally friendly packaging and carefully considered branding.

There is no escaping gastrophysics. It’s out there and in common usage so we would all be well-advised to become more aware and increase our understanding.

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By coincidence, or perhaps not, I read Gastrophysics only a couple of weeks after reading Margaret Visser’s excellent book, The Rituals of Dinner (reviewed here). Visser’s book is largely about table manners and describes how and why we complicate the manner in which we eat from a historical and sociological viewpoint. Gastrophysics is a scientific analysis of many of the same ideas.

Forced to choose, I would recommend The Rituals of Dinner on literary merit alone but probably also because, as I learned from Spence, I am reluctant to embrace change.

Gastrophysics will open your eyes to the exciting possibilities of a multi-sensory gastronomic experience but will also raise your awareness of the tricks being used every day to influence your food choices.

If you are in the business of selling food or are, perhaps, a particularly competitive dinner party host, you should consider Gastrophysics essential reading.

Buy Gastrophysics here from March 30th, 2017.

Irish blogger and book reviewer. Official contributor to Bookwitty.com and author of Bookwitty's monthly 'Cooking the Books' feature. Erstwhile microbiologist with an MSc in Food Science, she ... Show More