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We don’t talk about if often here, how to make sure that the food you make, is actually liked and desired by your customers. Whether that’s your family eating a meal, or millions of people buying your food. Instead, we tend to assume here that you know what to make and so we focus on how to make it (better).
In a way, this type of research is the easier one. You can accurately measure the colour of your bread, to determine whether the change of ingredients has impacted the colour. It is a lot harder though to measure whether a consumer will like it more or less. You need well-trained panels, enough people and a good amount of statistics to make this work. It becomes even more complicated if you then want to determine the impact of external factors such as light, colour and sound on the experience!
It is nevertheless fascinating. If this is the type of thing you’re interested in, this book, Gastrophysics (affiliate link) might be for you.
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What is gastrophyics?
In the book gastrophysics is defined as:
“The scientific study of those factors that influence our multisensory experience while tasting food and drink.”
In other words, the book is about how everything else than the food impacts our eating experience. Whether it’s the type of spoon we’re eating with, the music we’re hearing or the chair we’re sitting on. It is the research field of the author of the book, who has done yearrs of work within the field. The book collects a lot of anecdotes, findings and generally interesting insights from the field.
The author: Charles Spence
Charles Spence is a professor in experimental psychology at the university of Oxford. There he studies how vision, smell, hearing, touch and taste all interact. He continues to publish scientific articles in which he aims to understand how all these factors interact. What about the impact of the colour of a cup of coffee on consumer perception? Or how music impacts how we perceive our drinks?
During the past several years he has worked extensively with Heston Blumenthal (as you mentions regularly in the book). Heston is one of the top chefs of the world and has really explored this concept of using the environment to create a complete eating experience. He has realized that going to a restaurant isn’t just about the food. It’s about everything else as well.
Spence also won the Ig Nobel price, back in 2008 for a publication on using electronic sounds to improve the eating experience of eating a potato chip. The Ig Nobel Prize is a prize for achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think. This research is elaborated on in the book, and it’s fascinating! You can ‘fool’ people into thinking they’re eating a very crispy chip, simply by letting them hear crunchy sounds.
Should you place three scallops on a plate or four? Do consumers associate lightweight cutlery with good food or the opposite? Why do we drink more tomato juice in an airplane than on the ground?
Spence discusses all these scenarios and more in Gastrophysics (affiliate link). The book starts with a chapter on each of the 5 senses and then dives into various scenarios of eating. It ends with a look into the future.
One whole section discusses airline food and the high prevalence of tomato juices up in the air. An example of an airline offering special music playlists to go with the food, eating with all that airplane engine noise as well as the reduced air pressure. All clearly impact how we taste and thus eat and drink. There are a lot of interesting examples that make you think about airline food (which is even more interesting after having sen the episode on Netflix’ mega food episode on airplane food).
The section on sight discusses the importance of shapes, which is especially fascinating. The shape of a decoration on top of a coffee such as a latte macchiato can actually impact how consumers perceive the drink. Round shapes make the coffee less bitter than very pointy shapes.
The overall topic and abundance of real-life examples in the book are great. It is not a theoretical book at all and if you’re a restaurant owner, food manufacturer or home cook there’s probably something you can take away and try to apply for your situation. There are a lot of examples in the book.
It was generally well written, however, over time it did feel a little repetitive. In some cases it felt that the book kept trying to convince you of the importance/relevance of gastrophysics, even though as a reader you might well be convinced a long time before that and not need these subtle reminders. As a result, some sections could have been shortened or slightly less centered around making the point that gastrophysics is important.
That said, there aren’t a lot of books (as opposed to scientific literature) on the topic and it is definitely a whole lot more reader friendly than scientific articles. It’s a fun read and makes you think about topics you might not have thought about otherwise. It’s not as mind boggling and changing as the Dorito Effect, but definitely a worthwhile read.
Charles Spence has done various talks and speeches in the past several years. Looking at one of these is a great introduction to his work and might help you decide further whether you’d also like to read the book!
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Improbable research, Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize, link
Reinoso-Carvalho F., Dakduk S., Wagemans J., Spence C., Not Just Another Pint! the Role of Emotion Induced by Music on the Consumer’s Tasting Experience, 2019, DOI: 10.1163/22134808-20191374, link
University of Oxford, List of publication from Charles Spence, link