The Future of Flavor: Taste Bud Hacking

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Tastebud Hacks
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It can trick your mind into making things taste better – and can even make you eat healthier.

By Michael Powell

You don’t have to be Proust to know how smell invokes a memory – or how touch changes mood. Our senses are connected and clearly shape our awareness. Taste is no different and it’s all powered by the brain. Knowing this, scientists, psychologists, and restauranteurs are looking to engineer the way we enjoy food – taste hacking, if you will.

For decades, market research for Big Food has perfected manipulating color to entice potential customers and attempt to increase the appetite of patrons. Ask your neighborhood graphic or interior designer how clean vectors affect the perception of a cafe. Food scientist and oft cited expert in literal tastemaking Charles Spence extensively researches and writes about how all external factors affect the perceived flavor of food (hilariously dubbed gastrophysics).

Of course, conventional wisdom has always held that both fine cooking and music are works of art that appeal to the senses and one can easily complement the experiential quality of the other. There’s the phenomenon of food and music pairing within a cluster of celebrated restaurants in San Francisco. But it’s not just bistros trying out something twee to appeal to the Yelp-Pinterest complex – the results are real, and sounds can have an even more drastic effect on how we perceive taste.

Sounds Like Bacon

Psychologist David Melcher and art historian Francesca Bacci, in their book Art and the Sense, explore how these environmental aspects can affect the flavor of food, among other facets of our sensory experience, with an informed take. In one experiment cited in the book, food scientists (including the aforementioned Spence) asked 40 audience members at a conference to taste two samples of ‘bacon and egg’ ice cream in succession and rate the presence of either flavor. In the background, either a soundtrack of sizzling bacon sizzling or farmyard chickens played. The ice cream was completely identical, but (spoiler alert) the way the audience perceived the flavor was highly influenced by whether the audience enjoyed the bacon or farmyard ambience.

In other words, we are all Pavlov’s dogs.

In the Crossmodal Laboratory at Oxford University, where Spence teaches, researchers recently experimented with how tones amplify the sweetness or bitterness in our tastebuds. As its name suggests, the food scientists study the phenomenon of “modulating taste,” and you can try it yourself with a cup of coffee at home.

Here’s how to hack your own taste buds to see how this works:

First, grab something to eat or drink that contains both sweet and bitter notes. Coffee is the most obvious starting point. Then listen to these 2 tones while tasting:

You should notice one accents sweetness and the other bitter, as well as the location on the tongue that picks up these flavors.

Or you can try the “sonic cake pop” in this video with Spence and The Globe and Mail:

Research in the lab confirms what you’ll find: high tones accentuate sweetness, while lower tones amplify bitterness. Similar to the bacon experiment, spirits giant Diageo recently experimented with how background sounds change the perception of single malt whiskey. Unsurprisingly, they found red lighting and tinkling bells brought out sweeter flavors, while creaking floorboards and the music of a double bass bring out woody bourbon notes.

And when it comes to volume, noise clouds more than your thoughts – it also dilutes your taste. A recent study from The Netherlands found that loud background noise dilutes both perceptions of saltiness and sweetness. While this spells certain doom for airplane food, restaurants who choose the loud and bustling atmosphere or loud live music still have a chance reverse the flavor hemorrhage.

Foodhacking for Healthier Eating

The correlation is strong and the science is, ahem, sound on the relationship between hearing and tasting. So what if we could trick people into eating healthier? Though the study of sound and food is relatively new, and Spence and his team continue to test a number of hypotheses, other foodhackers are trying to deceive the tongue in the name of healthy eating. For example, manipulating the size and shape of salt crystals can maintain the same level of saltiness while lowering intake. A pyramid shape has more surface area and can pack a bigger punch without increasing the actual volume.

Meanwhile, umami flavorings that ignite the savory tastebuds, many of which can come from natural foods like tomatoes, can trick the brains into sensing something is both saltier or sweeter than it really is.

Considering how easy it is to manipulate how the brain processes food, it’s only a matter of time before science determines how to do it with sound and aesthetics. Both boutique cafes in chic neighborhoods and McDonald’s are counting on it.

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Michael C. Powell keeps his spear sharp in all sorts of creative endeavors, freelancing as a writer, designer, and photographer for outlets like Consequence of Sound and IMPOSE Magazine. He’s also an alum of The Guardian, Tiny Mix Tapes, Pitchfork’s hypnagogic sister site Altered Zones, his home’s alt newsweekly LEO Weekly and others. Follow him on Twitter @kbloggins.

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