Every meal opens up a magnificent sensual world of colours, shapes, smells, textures, and sounds. By taking into account such cues, it is possible to improve the enjoyment of our food.
Imagine having a meal that includes white fish with potatoes, cauliflower, and white sauce, in a snowy winter day, while listening to the song "white Christmas". Sounds "white", doesn't it? But why? Do we really understand what influences our food experiences?
Every meal, even if ordinary, opens up a magnificent sensual world. Just think about it. It involves colours, shapes, smells, textures, and even atmospheric sounds. Here, we argue that the role that these attributes play in our interaction with what we eat and drink can be empirically studied and strategically used to design specific food experiences.
Tasting colours and shapes
It's been said that we eat first with our eyes. Colour, for example, is a highly diagnostic attribute, and as such, it is critical for both food expectations and experience. Colour helps us identify and discriminate foods, determine whether they are good or bad, and predict their likely taste.
Based on the latter idea, chef Jozef Youssef introduced his dish 'The Taste of Colour", where the diners are served four spherified mouthfuls of food in red, black, white, and green colours. The diners are asked to try the salty, bitter, sour, and finally sweet bites but they are not told which one is which, so they need to rely on colour. Usually, diners select the white, black, green and red bites, respectively, which reflects common taste/colour associations that 'feel right' to many people.
Shapes are also important for food identification and taste inference. Researchers have shown that most people associate sweet tastes with round shapes and sour and bitter tastes with angular shapes instead. Moreover, it appears that food presented in round forms and on round plates, relative to their angular counterparts, may result in a greater perceived sweetness.
Now, let's move on to the sense of hearing. Many people assume that this sense is the least important when it comes to food perception. However, sounds derived from our interaction with food—like crunching, slurping, or smacking—but also environmental noise, or any music that might be playing when we eat, can impact our food experiences.
For instance, noise (think of the sound of an airplane cabin) seems to impact the perception of taste intensity, such that sweet is perceived as less intense and umami as more intense in a noisy environment. Many brands have begun to realise this, and are now trying to differentiate their offers through food/sound pairings.
For example, Finnair's chef recently introduced customized soundscapes to accompany and enhance the experience of some of its in-flight meals. British Airways has developed a similar strategy where particular songs from popular artists are suggested as a means to sonically "season" specific dishes.
Just as we might prefer to eat an ice cream cone to the sound of chirping birds in a park rather than to the noise of a construction site, sound, as one of many factors in this scenario, can play an important part in the experience of food.
The taste of cutlery
Directly or indirectly, touch is also involved in eating and drinking.
Have you ever given much thought to the cutlery you use and its impact on your experience? In a recent study, researchers at Oxford University showed that the weight of cutlery used to eat a meal can influence the enjoyment of that very food. The participants that used the heavier cutlery liked the food more than those that used lighter cutlery.
Of course, this is not to say that cutlery always needs to be heavy for us to enjoy our food. Nonetheless, these findings suggest that seemingly unrelated external variables such as the weight of the cutlery can influence the enjoyment of what we eat.
Indeed, based on these ideas, there have been several chefs rethinking the way tableware looks, feels, and sounds in order to customize dining experiences.
Improving the enjoyment of food
Eating is one of the most multisensory events of our everyday life. Therefore, it is important for us to become aware of how each of our senses are constantly and unavoidably engaged in this process.
When we become aware of the different sensory cues that are involved in these experiences, we may be able to make healthier choices that can impact our eating habits.
What is more, by taking into account such cues, it is possible to improve the enjoyment of our food. Ultimately, it is up to us how we craft our multisensory eating experiences.
- Fairhurst, M., Pritchard, D., Ospina, D., & Deroy, O. (2015). Bouba-Kiki in the plate: Combining crossmodal correspondences to change flavour experience. Flavour, 4:22.
- Yan, K. S., & Dando, R. (2015). A crossmodal role for audition in taste perception. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 41, 590-596.
- Michel, C., Velasco, C., & Spence, C. (2015). Cutlery matters: heavy cutlery enhances diners' enjoyment of the food served in a realistic dining environment. Flavour, 4:26.
This article is first published in BI Marketing Magazine 2018. BI Marketing Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Marketing at BI Norwegian Business School.