Even before Marcel Proust famously wrote a seven-volume novel from memories triggered by the taste of a madeleine, chefs have understood there’s more to tasting food than just flavor. Every day our minds create perceptions that affect how we register food’s deliciousness, working alongside our brain’s hardwiring.
Neurogastronomy is the newly named branch of science asserting that taste and smell happen primarily in the brain, rather than the mouth and nose. It’s mind-hacking for foodies. As Gordon M. Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor, explained in a 2013 interview: “The brain turns [food] into a representation that wasn’t in the original molecules. The brain is creating an illusion and that gives the brain a chance to represent them in a way that’s more vivid in flavor.” In other words, taste buds are just a pathway; flavor is the sum of everything our brains bring to the table.
Born from studying chemotherapy patients’ inability to enjoy food resulting from neurologically impaired senses of taste, neurogastronomy studies our emotional, cognitive, and rational enjoyment of food, from the shape and color of plates to the sound food makes.
It makes sense—there is no taste without the mind, which processes our senses, so why not maximize the advantage. British Chef Heston Blumenthal has for years used neurogastronomy in a dish of oysters that come with headphones and an iPod playing sounds of the sea. Sublimotion restaurant on Ibiza, Spain is designed by “engineers, illusionists, set designers, architects, choreographers, and screenwriters” who create settings like volcanoes or glaciers (among others), elaborate costumes, and virtual reality (complete with glasses). The surroundings change with each course, to complement the each unique dish.
At Ultraviolet restaurant in Shanghai as well, “each course is enhanced with its own taste-tailored atmosphere” using 360-degree projection of images, scent diffusers and cool-air blowers, and sound. The restaurant refers to its 20-course experience as “psycho-taste.”
Neurogastronomy could be used to great public health advantage, working with brain chemistry to make healthier foods more pleasing. The International Society of Neurogastronomy held its first symposium last week, a gathering of chefs, physicians, and researchers and hopefully they’re working on that. Shepherd hopes he can work with food producers to make healthier foods that people want.
See Beyond Tastebuds: The Science of Delicious in National Geographic‘s December issue for more on the science of taste, but in the meantime, you can count on science to up your home dining game without improving your cooking skills one bit. Here’s how:
- Mind Your Plates. The same strawberry dessert tastes 10 percent sweeter when served on a white plate than on a black one. Changing from rectangular slate plates to round white ceramic plates also made the same dessert taste 10 percent sweeter. For chocolate fans, hot cocoa is perceived as sweeter with a more intense aroma when served in a dark-cream-colored cup. And for all meals, dishes that are heavier and more substantial give the impression of higher-quality food within.
- Use Heavy Cutlery. Heavier knives, forks, and spoons create perception that food is tastier and of higher quality, according to Charles Spence, a godfather of neurogastronomy. And for those who crave sodium, food tastes saltiest when sampled from a knife rather than a fork, spoon, or toothpick (although I’m not sure it’s worth the risk)
- Choose the Right Playlist. It’s not surprising that fast music increases eating speed and slow music decreases it. But slow music also increases perceived food quality. Also, according to a chef research pair, “lower-ptiched vibrational bass sound made the dessert more bitter and brought out burnt notes, while a high-pitched sound made the toffee more sweet and floral.”
- Pay Attention to Your Surroundings. Drink whisky in a bright room with grass, listening to a lawnmower and birds, and it will taste grassier. Drink it while listening to a fire burning, and it will taste woodsier. Everything matters. No pressure.
- Color Food Intensely. According to Spence, “colour is the single most product-intrinsic sensory cue when it comes to setting people’s expectations regarding the likely taste and flavor of food and drink.” (Anyone who has ever had a child ask for “red flavor” juice can attest to this.) From some preliminary research, foods that are colored more intensely, even by dyes, are identified as more intensely flavored.
- Make it crunchy. As Shepherd states in the 2013 interview, “Crunchiness is one of the most prized sensations in the food we eat,” because it represents freshness—fresh fruits and vegetables, or even freshly fried.