FLAVOUR; MUCH MORE THAN GOOD TASTE
By Eva Perroni
Long before my obsession for writing about food and sustainability took hold, I had a previous life as a psychology student deeply interested in the relationship between behaviour and the brain. I cannot truly say that I remember much from those three hour long lectures some ten years ago, but oddly, one experiment remains after all that time. It revealed the relationship between our sense of smell and our sense of taste. According to the study, when people are blindfolded and their sense of smell blocked, the majority cannot taste the difference between apples and onions (perhaps Tony Abbott just has really bad sinusitis).
It turns out that the sensation of ‘flavour’ is actually the result of the brain making combinations between all five senses: sight, sound, smell and touch, with taste having a lot less to do with it than one might think. Scientists have long claimed that a large part of what is perceived as flavour is actually determined by the nose, anywhere between 75% and 95% of it. Notice how your ability to taste is diminished when you have the flu or a cold?
Charles Spence, a UK psychology professor who works with chefs including Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck and a number of multinational food companies, spends his time investigating the influences of different senses on taste. In one award-winning experiment, Spence made participants crunch into Pringles whilst wearing headphones that relayed the crunch sound. Spence played around with the crunch volume and found that when participants heard a louder, higher-pitched crunch, they perceived the Pringles to be a full fifteen per cent fresher than the softer-sounding chips. They were all from the same freshly opened packet.
Spence has also found that taste can be influenced by what would seem like rather incidental features, like the colour and shape of food receptacles. Strawberry-flavoured mousse tastes ten per cent sweeter when eaten from a white instead of black container, coffee is more intense and bitter when drunk from a white mug rather than a clear glass, and cheesecake tastes a massive twenty per cent sweeter when eaten from a round plate instead of a square one. Although it may seem abstract, shapes actually affect a variety of tastes. Rounded forms are typically associated with sweet tastes whereas more angular shapes are associated with bitter. Notice how Cadbury’s dairy milk now has smooth, rounder edges whereas Lindt dark chocolate is shaped in sharp squares? That’s intentional.
Our taste experience is also influenced by information coming from outside the food itself, such as package designs, brand names and prices. When researchers added tartaric acid, associated with sourness and astringency, to wine in blind tastings, people rated the wine to be of lower quality. Yet this effect was totally masked when people were privy to a country of origin label and price, with the latter having by far the strongest influence on wine evaluation. Even French sommeliers will prefer wine poured from a high-priced bottle over the same wine poured from a cheap one. People tend to believe that a higher price tag is indicative of better quality, even when it’s not.
Similarly, an extravagantly named dish, like ‘Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet’ is likely to be perceived as tasting better than the same dish described simply as ‘Seafood Fillet’. Even the choice of cutlery affects people’s perception of taste. A study by the journal Flavour found yoghurt to taste ‘more expensive’ when eaten with a plastic spoon, and saltier when eaten from a blue one.
It turns out that the way we experience food is not limited to the mouth. Odour, vision, hearing and touch, in conjunction with perceived quality indicators like brand name and price can, radically change the taste of any given food. Flavour, it seems, is a combination of multiple sensations and expectations. Although I’m still not game enough to bite into an onion, even with my nose plugged and eyes shut.
Eva Perroni is an activist-researcher and writer focused on creating a more just and sustainable food system.