Anyone who has tried to enjoy a gourmet meal while suffering from a cold knows that perception of taste involves more than the tongue. The taste buds, as previously discussed on this blog, can distinguish the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory), while the nose is responsible for distinguishing more complex aspects of food; chewing forces airborne aromas through the nasal passages, and the brain fully recognizes flavor only when taste and smell are combined. But new research suggests that a ringing ear may be have a similar effect as a stuffy nose when it comes to the appreciation of food. The sounds that accompany a meal can have a surprising influence on the perception of its flavor.
In what could be considered a direct sonic metaphor for the clogged-up sinuses, a team of British scientists exposed tasters to different levels of background noise as they consumed a sampling of cookies and potato chips. The researchers found that a cookie, when eaten under loud conditions, tasted less sweet than the same cookie eaten under quiet conditions; they observed the same pattern for the saltiness of the potato chips. Loudness did, however, enhance the tasters’ perceptions of crunchiness, which may be just as important as actual flavor to the enjoyment of food. Another study correlated the “enjoyment of biting” for a number of different foods with crispness, which was quantified by the amount of high-frequency sound produced by a texture analyzer (effectively a mechanical mouth) biting into the food. Malcolm Povey, author of the study, suggested that humans are “genetically disposed to appreciating crispiness as a sign of freshness in food.”
One experiment successfully turned this correlation on its head: instead of manipulating the crispness of the food itself, Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence changed the sounds tasters heard while eating. In his study, participants were given 90 potato chips, each one identical in composition, thickness, and texture. The bite noises for each chip were recorded by a microphone placed by the mouth of the taster, and these noises were “remixed” live into a pair of headphones worn by the taster. Zampini and Spence found that if he dulled the attack of the bite noise, the taster would likely rate the chip as soft and stale; conversely, brightening the noise caused the tasters to rate the chip as crisp and fresh. The study received the somewhat dubious distinction of the 2008 “Ig Nobel Prize,” an award given to experiments that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
For businesses that serve food, however, this research is no laughing matter. The effects of loudness on taste, for example, has led airlines to examine how the white noise in the cabins of their planes might be the real culprit behind the blandness of dining in the sky. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has attracted patrons to his restaurant with a dish he calls the “Sound of the Sea“: “razor clams, sea urchin, and oysters paired with seafood foam, tapioca and panko sand,” served alongside a conch shell containing an iPod with a soundtrack of crashing waves. While this approach is something of a gimmick, it recognizes how the taste experience is really a feast for all of the senses.