Why our spoons will soon play music and we’ll eat bugs with our hands

The new science of ‘gastrophysics’ studies how and why we eat, and is already starting to overhaul the way we dine

Dilia Narduzzi
Content image

Table with food, top view. (Olga Klochanko/Shutterstock)

Table with food, top view. (Olga Klochanko/Shutterstock)
Table with food, top view. (Olga Klochanko/Shutterstock)

From eat-local campaigns to specialty diets, from the popularity of cooking shows to Instagramming our meals, everyday diners are more interested, it seems, in the nuances of food. Backed by pioneering science and research, Charles Spence’s new book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, takes that interest several steps further to explore everything that goes on when we eat, beyond the taste of the food in our mouths. A professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, he explores the other senses—how smell, touch and sight impact how we perceive what we’re eating. He discusses how our memories of particular foods influence how we taste them. Even whether we’re eating with utensils or our hands plays a role in our experience of eating. Spence calls factors beyond the food itself the “everything else” of eating, and this “everything else” plays a huge role in food experiences both at home and when we eat out. In an interview with Maclean’s, Spence discusses food porn and how Instagram is changing how and what we eat and taste; why we like eating things that are personalized (like that Coke can with your name on it, or your personalized Starbucks cup); and the future of food and eating. Spoiler alert: we won’t be eating 3D-printed pizzas, but technology will play a greater role, including spoons with MP3 players or iPod music matched to menu items. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: What exactly is gastrophysics?

A: It’s a new approach to thinking about eating, and it focuses on the science of the diner and dining, essentially, looking at real-world food experiences, so that’s where the gastronomy comes from. The second part, the physics, is from psychophysics, which is kind of food psychology.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about the other senses beyond taste and how they influence eating. Can you tell me how things like touch and smell work in regard to how we experience food?

A: I think all the senses play a role in tasting and our experience of flavour, not just what goes on on the tongue. Smell is especially important but often not really recognized because our brain kind of glues all the information we get from our nose and tells us we’re with tasting it in our mouth, kind of an illusion called oral referral. So I think we say that maybe 75 to 95 per cent of what we think we’re tasting in our mouth we’re really smelling in our nose. This is important because we don’t realize that literally all we get from our mouth is sweet, salty taste, bitter taste, sour taste, and umami, the fifth taste. Everything else you know you like in food and drink, meaty, floral, herbal, fruity, burnt, creamy—those are all coming from your nose and smell.

A lot of design around food neglects this fact. So if you think about the example of the coffee cup, they’re Styrofoam cups with a plastic lid—millions and millions of these coffees are drunk in that way every day. And yet this is really bad from a sense of design if you know about the senses, because what those plastic lids with this little hole for your mouth singularly prevent you from being able to do is smell the coffee, and this is really bad because coffee is has one of the world’s best-smelling smells. All people get is this retronasal experience with the volatile molecules coming out the back of the nose whenever you swallow; that’s the kind of second best part of the experience. So for that reason I’m very excited by the latest in design in gastrophysics where people are trying to redesign bottles and can openings and coffee lids in order to allow people to get more sensation, more of the smell and hence more of the taste from their food and drink.

I’m also seeing many of the chefs starting to play with delivery of scent. If you think about that hot, steaming plate of food coming from the kitchen all the way to your table, that’s all the flavour, all the taste disappearing right there up into the air. So, yeah, do you put a cloth on the top or do you start delivering some of the scent at the table with an atomized spray or how else you do it? There’s a number of ways that chefs are playing with, and food companies are also starting to say, okay, if smell is so important to taste, how do we design and do things differently to enhance the experience?

In terms of touch, I think touch is neglected somewhat in tasting but it’s important, and that’s everything from providing variety and interest in the textures of things that we eat and texture contrasting, important to any chef when they’re designing a dish or a meal through to some of the stuff that we feel whenever we eat. So a part of the book is about encouraging people to start eating with their hands, to not always feel that they have to use a knife and fork. Not for all foods, of course, but for some to first taste in a way with the fingers. I talk about how some chefs now based on our research are serving their diners with heavier knives and forks because heavy cutlery makes food taste more valuable.

Q: You talk about a hamburger tasting better because you’re eating it with your hands. Why is that? Why does it matter what we use?

A: It can be about setting expectations. So when I see a food, right, I can get some idea what it’s going to taste like, but not a perfect one, about texture and doneness, whereas with the fingers, they’re much better about telling me how hot something is maybe, the texture of the fruit and other foods, the freshness, the softness, and by building up those richer expectations before you eat, by using the hands, that can help reach expectations that are then enjoyed more.

Also if you think about sort of cutlery, knives and forks, they’ve been incredibly boring and sort of unpleasantly cold, smooth steel or silver. There has been no innovation in the world of cutlery for a century. Contrast that with all the stuff with modern plating and gastro porn and bizarre plate-ware, and cutlery has stayed just the same. So here we have something that’s not been designed for the mouth, for the tongue, for the way we know from gastrophysics [how] we actually taste today, and you can do much better. I think this is eating with the hands or showing some of the examples both from design as in the culinary artist side but some of the real cutlery manufacturers, they’re starting to get interested in doing things differently, changing the weight of the cutlery, changing the texture of the handle or of the spoon. I think we’re going to see a lot more of this hopefully in about five years’ time we’ll kind of look back and say, “Gosh, wasn’t that boring. Why did we never think?”

So touch is important for the restaurant, chefs playing, designers playing, but also given that roughly a third of the food and drink we consume we consume direct from a package—the cans, the bottles, the packs or the yogurt pops and so on—then thinking about the feel, the texture, the weight, the comfortability of the material, the product packaging. Food-product packaging is actually very important and now we’re starting to see more innovative design in shape and texture and feel in the marketplace inspired by gastrophysics and then in the hands of the designers to make it look like something you would want to pick up and touch but will hopefully also deliver a functional benefit to the person.

I’ll tell you some examples of glasses: a pint beer glass and wine glass that have kind of etched lips just at the very top where you put your tongue, those are designed to draw attention to the mouth and by making you think more about what’s going in your mouth, what you’re tasting, you’ll hopefully have a richer experience as a result.

Q: Right. I think you’ve touched on some of these already, but you talk a lot in the book about this “everything else of food.” So can you maybe tell me a little bit more?

A: Everything else is absolutely everything else, really, apart from the food, and really stuff that surrounds our food experiences but we rarely think about, and when you look in the journals and books no one has ever studied scientifically—even though I know the weight, the shape, the colour, the texture will change the experience. I think that until we did our first study in 2011 or 2012 on cutlery, there had been no psychological study of its impact ever. Yet every time we eat, three times a day or more, we stick cutlery into our mouths in a way we’d not stick anything else into our mouths. It’s bizarre.

So that’s the everything else. There’s also the tables we sit at, the colour of the walls, the music in the background, the company we’re with, the stories and descriptions that are told about the dishes. It’s about our memories we bring to the table in anticipation of a meal and also that stay with us after, and I’m thinking you could think of varying the colour or the material of the tablecloth, the shape of the table even. Rounder tables encourage people more towards agreeing; everyone at those tables is going for the tasting menu, whereas angular tables engender a different kind of response. That’s all there.

I think increasingly everything else is going to start to become a sort of personalization of the food experience, the way in which technology starts to sit there at the table and influence our food choices, experiences, memories as well.

So I sort of talk a lot about the “psych seasoning,” this new idea that you can pick or design or create musical soundscapes that will enhance a certain taste attribute as part of the everything else. No one would have thought that music could change the taste, no one would have thought that the colour or shape of the plate would change the taste of the food, and yet all of this everything else does.

It’s all up for grabs. Some of it is easier to study than others, some of it may be more impactful than other things. Maybe visual appeal, eye appeal, gastro porn, maybe that’s more important than touch in the grand scheme of things. But I think they all play a role, and understanding them by collecting evidence, I think, we can go beyond the intuition that sometimes the chefs or restauranteurs would say, “Yeah, I kind of knew that already, I kind of knew that heavy cutlery mattered, I just never thought it mattered that much.”

Q: You talk in the book about how something as simple as Starbucks putting your name on your cup makes it feel more important to you. Is it just because we’re egotistical?

A: I’m not sure whether anyone has done the study to see how how egotistical you are changes how much better the coffee tastes, but I guess we like things that are familiar, we like things that are easy to process, we like things that have been sort of customized, that are just for us rather than for everyone. Putting the name on the cup ticks all of those boxes. Maybe it’s kind of bizarre just how impactful this kind of meaningless personalization [can be]—like Coke, they had their best ever marketing campaign simply by allowing you to buy a bottle of Coke with your name on it.

Q: I have to ask you about social media: how do you think that this explosion of social media is changing people’s experience with food?

A: I think it plays various roles. I’m not sure if it made it into the book or not, but I worked a lot with cocktail makers. I found a number of [people attending] a cocktail-makers convention were saying it’s bizarre now that people are coming into [their] bar and saying, “I want this,” and they’re showing you the screen of their mobile device, showing you a picture that somebody sent them of a drink. When you ask them, “Do you know what it is, do you know what it tastes like, do you know what it’s called?” they have no idea. They just want that.

So the image is becoming all-powerful to the extent that it becomes free marketing; more and more people are taking more and more pictures of the food that they eat and hence the chefs, the baristas, the cocktail makers are having to respond to that by making food that is more Instagrammable. Because if you don’t, no one is going to want to take a picture of that and you don’t get the free [social] media post.

So that takes us to two places. On the one hand, it will enhance people’s food experience to the extent that what’s beautiful to the eye tastes better. But there’s of course a danger of things going too far. This is something that some of my chef colleagues are sensitive to: they see sort of artists who are making fabulously beautiful Instagrammable dishes but they can see from the ingredient list that they just won’t taste good. There’s a danger that if you go too far in pleasing to the eye and in gastro porn and Instagrammable dishes, you neglect to think about the core of the experience, the actual tasting. So it’s for that reason we’re starting to do some research in the [U.K. Michelin-starred restaurant] The Fat Duck and the chefs and restaurants saying, “Okay, is there some happy medium ground here, things that will look beautiful but which we can guarantee will still taste great because you know more about how people interact with a dish.”

Q: This Instagram trend, the image becoming more and more powerful, that’s linked to food porn, right? Are these two the same thing or is there something more to food porn?

A: I suppose food porn as a term started decades ago, so before Instagram was a thing. In Japan, making beautiful looking dishes of food has been around for centuries, but in Western cuisine nouvelle cuisine was the start. Paul Bocuse’s cookbook in 1977, that was where the first use of the term food porn pops up.

But it has been kind of accelerated, that trend, by the increasing power of the image and marketing opportunities of the image. The marketers, the gastrophysicists, the scientists, the advertisers will learn more and more about exactly what it is that is most appealing to our brain; they’ll create food that is most visually attractive, designed for the brain, the way our brain has evolved.

We’re working with a chef in London called Jozef Youssef who appears a few times in the book, and with him we’re trying to make the un-Instagrammable dish, sort of a counterpoint. He’s worried that he can’t surprise his diners anymore because every amazing dish he serves you’ve already seen on your friend’s social media. So what we’re trying to do is have a dish where people come, they have to put their mobile devices on the table, we’ll coat it with a clear, edible gel, and then serve the dish off the mobile device. It’s kind of fun, but also stresses the point that surprise is being lost.

Q: If you had to pick one or two major food trends that will affect how everyday eaters dine in the near future, what would those be?

A: I think there’s going to be an explosion of cutlery and the way that food gets moved from wherever it is—maybe there will be no longer a plate.

And also entomophagy, eating insects, [is] a large possibility; thinking about the sustainable angle, I do see many, many of the chefs that we work with trying to nudge their diners to get them to think differently about where their food is coming from and having less meat courses, more vegetables, more insects. But I haven’t really seen many of the big food companies getting on board with increasing insect matter in their foods.

I think personalization is just going to grow and grow and shift from being meaningless to meaningful. But whatever it is, we will not be eating, as they told us a century ago and I even heard a conference a couple of days ago, Soylent or a meal in a pill.