Ever wonder why so many people order tomato juice on airplanes, or if free-range chicken actually tastes better than factory farmed chicken? In Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, Charles Spence provides the answers to these types of questions, informing us, for example, that the reason 27% of people order tomato juices on planes is because the sound of the air pressure dulls our ability to taste sweets, but not to taste umani, a prominent component in tomato juice’s flavor. As for the free-range chicken, studies show people offered identical chicken think it tastes more pleasant and is less greasy if they believe it was free-range chicken, as opposed to factory farmed. In other words, they think it tastes better, even if it doesn’t.
Gastrophysics is a virtual encyclopedia of all the ways our expectations and the physical environment can affect our perception of taste. The idea that our surroundings affect the taste of our food is not particularly new, dating back to at least the 1920s, but it is one that has persistently failed to take hold in our popular imagination. Our default assumption is the taste of food is independent of the flatware it is eaten with, the shape of the plate it is served on, or the music playing in the background. Yet, as Spence details, none of that is true. In fact, heavier cutlery makes our food taste better, a rounder plate makes our food taste sweeter, and different music accentuates different components of food’s flavor profile.
Spence exhaustively catalogues the ways our physical environment affects our experience of taste. If you’re a food or drink marketer, a restaurant owner, or just a foodie looking to maximize your eating experience, this book is invaluable. Even though the information has a gimmicky, as-seen-on-TV feel (use a red plate and you will eat less! orient your food the right way and it will taste better!) the information is the real deal, backed up by valid studies, and even neuroscience.
Spence, however, mostly sticks to documenting observed reactions. He does not dig deeper, and consider how culture affects our perceptions of taste. He notes that our expectations of a meal or drink — a higher price point of wine will lead us to believe it tastes better, for example — shape our experience of its taste and flavor. But he doesn’t acknowledge, or untangle, how those expectations and even the associations we have with physical properties are culturally shaped.
Even though colors, sounds, and shapes are physical properties, the deeper meanings associated with those properties are cultural. In China and India, for example, the color red is a wedding color. But in South Africa, it is a color of mourning. So one would expect these vastly different associations would have different effects on us when we eat. Spence fails to note this, seeming to believe our reactions are universal. He occasionally tosses in theories of evolutionary psychology to explain how these physical properties affect our experience of taste. He theorizes, for example, that sharper images, like star logos on food or beverage packaging, make food taste more bitter because, in a state of nature, sharp things are often lethal or poisonous. He speculates we like watching moving food (implied or actual) because as hunters we were deeply engrained to track prey animals.
These theories could be true, but Spence makes no effort to establish the reactions were cross-cultural, which would be the bare minimum to speculate about their origins in human biology. The studies he draws on are almost entirely from the West, particularly from England, where he is a professor at the University of Oxford, and from America. Thus, the reactions and tendencies he catalogues may very well be Western reactions, based on our particular cultural associations, and not, as he implies, universal human reactions.
Spence has a noticeable paternalistic streak in his writing, applauding and encouraging food and beverage companies to manipulate their product and packaging in order to make the food healthier without consumers being aware. Adding red color to a sweetened beverage, for example, will cause consumers to rate it up 10% sweeter, even though the sugar level is the same. Creating packaging with rounded shapes will do the same thing. While these examples seem benign, there is something disturbing about encouraging corporations to disguise the content of their products (even if it is for the consumers’ own good) that Spence does not acknowledge or even seem to be aware of. Indeed, corporations can use this type of research for good or bad – Spence himself notes that supermarkets fabricate particular farm names to label their products with, to give consumers the false impression their cheese, say, came from a wholesome family farm rather than a factory farm.
The use of this research in high-end restaurants seems less fraught, namely because the restaurants’ motivations are not to deceive the consumer, but to maximize their tasting experience. Restaurants are drawing on this research to enhance, not overshadow, the flavors in their food. By controlling the color of the food, the shape of the table, the weight and materials of the cutlery, the noise level in the restaurant, the ambient aromas, and the menu descriptions, chefs are ensuring diners are having exactly the tasting experience they intend to deliver. This practice makes perfect sense — if the color of the plate affects how we perceive flavors (and it does) then chefs would be losing control of the tasting experience if they let someone else pick the plates.
Some trendy restaurants have taken it a step further, and are experimenting more extremely with an immersive dining experience. From Jackson Pollack-like dessert art on the table, to a food opera, to chefs dramatically opening bottles of wine with a sabre, these restaurants are combining theater, music, technology, and eating in newfangled ways. For 1,500 euros per person, a restaurant called Sublimotion uses 3D digital projection to alter the scenery for each of its twenty courses, changing the dining room walls and ceiling from a forest to an ocean to a train; it also deploys spinning plates, self-mixing drinks, sprayed aromas, and temperature shifts. No doubt all these external stimuli change the experience of the food, but in what way is much more difficult to identify than simply changing a plate from white to black.
Spence’s book is neatly divided into chapters, first by the senses, documenting how each one affects eating, and then by psychological factors that affect dining, like socializing, and memory, and finally relevant subject matters, like airline food and atmospheric restaurants. The book lacks an overarching narrative so there is no need to read it all at once, or, for the first two-thirds, even in linear order. Each chapter is interesting, but it is information dense. Beyond those who are just curious, this book would be useful to foodies seeking to maximize their eating experience, as well as professional food and beverage makers and marketers. It would also be useful for anyone on a diet. (For the dieters, eat from a red, heavy bowl — you’ll eat much less.)