5 Things To Learn from Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

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Welcome to Finny From Scratch, your source for engaging and stimulating posts about all things food. Here I celebrate how food connects us to ourselves and each other. Every post reflects my love for- and connection to- food through the senses: sight, taste, smell, sound, and touch. This isn’t a recipe blog or a food history blog or a food photography blog, but a wonderful stew of them all.

5 Things Gastrophysics Can Teach You

We’ve talked about how to get inspired to cook, thinking about food differently, and living your values through food. We know paying attention to the meals you create and the ingredients you choose is important, but why? How does your perception of food change based on the environment like whether you have a cold and the company you are with? Charles Spence, author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, answers these questions and many more. Today we’re talking about 5 things to learn from Gastrophysics and how it applies to your life.

Gastrophysics is the combination of gastronomy (the study of food and the science of good eating) and psychophysics (the scientific study of perception). In this book, Spence shares the results of his experiments with “factors that influence our multisensory experience while tasting food and drink” (xvii). He pulls back from focusing exclusively on the plate to look at what is in the environment, the shape of the table, the level and genre of music, the weight of the silverware, and the science of the senses to break down how we experience food and drink. He writes about how we can optimize these experiences, whether we work in a restaurant or are throwing a dinner party for friends. 

His best example of setting the mood is in Denis Martin’s restaurant in Switzerland; the meal doesn’t start until one table picks up a small cow sitting on the table, which moos mournfully upon being picked up. This leads everyone else to do the same and laugh along, thereby raising the mood and the enjoyment of the meal. 

Though Spence focuses on high-end Michelin star restaurants, his goal is that the combined learnings of Chef and Scientist working together will trickle down and influence everyone’s food and drink experiences, regardless of whether they are a chef, home cook, or occasional party-thrower. 

5 Things to Learn From Gastrophysics

  1. Your tongue is lying

People commonly assume that taste and flavor are interchangeable. But as Spence lays out, there are only five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Anything else is considered flavor even though it feels like it’s coming from the mouth. The German researcher Herr Hanig studied the tongue and taste buds and published a paper. When it was translated into English, his research was misinterpreted, leading to the misunderstanding of the tongue map with each taste in its own separate section. Instead of the taste buds being sectioned off, as is commonly seen in the tongue map, each person has multiple sensors for each of the five tastes throughout the tongue.

More importantly, using tastebuds is only one small piece of the taste-puzzle. What is in your mouth and mind (your memory of that meal or a similar one) will help form a clearer taste experience. 

  1. Smell is more important than you think

Eating while suffering from a stuffy nose or a head cold is typically unpleasant. Most food seems bland and having to pause to breathe while eating is irritating nonetheless. You may already know that smell is important to taste, but do you know there are two different ways we smell? The first is external, called orthonasal, coming from the environment we are in. Picture the steam from the hot chicken noodle soup rising up. This orthonasal type of smelling helps the brain form an expectation of how the meal will probably taste. The second way we smell is internal, called retronasal, and comes from inside the mouth. As we chew and swallow, the aroma flows from the back of the mouth into the back of the nose. This is how we experience variety and richness in our food.

  1. The shape and color of the plate matters

Your brain makes educated guesses about how food will taste, based on the shape of the serving vessel (rounded, angular, flat or deep) and the color of the food. Try this example from the book, using the made up words “bouba” and “kiki” rate the following items on a scale: ripe brie, dark chocolate, cheddar cheese, still water, milk chocolate, and sparkling water. Most participants, myself included, will associate “bouba” with sweeter and smoother items, and “kiki” with more bitter or carbonated items.

Take the frozen strawberry mousse example from the book. The chef placed the same strawberry mousse on a white plate and a black plate. Diners rated the dessert as 10% sweeter and 15% more flavorful on a white plate than the black plate. Food in rounder dishes will be more likely viewed as sweeter and creamier than that of an angular plate, where bitterness and sourness come to the forefront. 

  1. Dining with others can increase enjoyment of a meal

The number of people you dine with, your relationship with them, and how much they eat can also affect your meal experience. The amount of food you eat increases when eating with others, unless you are with people who are barely touching their food. Spence says, “Dramatic mood swings are associated with significant changes in taste and smell sensitivity” (page 135). If you are arguing with your dining partner, your sense of taste and smell will be reduced, leading you to assume the food has no flavor, instead of recognizing that your emotional state has deadened your senses.

  1. Modernist cuisine is older than you think 

Have you wondered about the birth of modernist cuisine – those 3-star Michelin chefs serving beautifully plated orbs and streaks of sauces? Spence draws heavily on examples in the modernist kitchen to demonstrate his research.  A few restaurants from the Netflix series Chef’s Table (also mentioned in my “Get Inspired to Cook and Create” post) like Alinea, el Bulli, and Noma are used as examples of modernist cuisine in this book. Spence looks back even further to the Italian Futurists of the 1930s, who he believes are the true fathers of modernist cuisine.

Though they couldn’t cook, they developed a multi-sensory experience designed to provoke and shock their guests out of their comfort zones through dying familiar foods a different color, providing different table-side textures to stroke while eating, and playing music of croaking frogs while eating a dish of frogs’ legs. 

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