When we published the trends article earlier this year we briefly took a look at the emerging trend of neurogastronomy and asked the question just what it could do for the wider food market.
Neurogastronomy is one of a few newly defined branches of gastronomy aimed at using a more research and science based approach to making recipes and eating experiences better. The lead researcher on this topic appears to be Charles Spence based in the Crossmodal Research Laboratory of Oxford University. His research has focussed on topics ranging from how best to layout a restaurant menu to creating dishes that are appealing to people who are colour blind. How the size, weight and colour of cutlery influence perception (Harrar & Spence,2013)
How the size, weight and colour of cutlery influence perception (Harrar & Spence,2013)
The example above is taken from a research paper written by Charles Spence in 2013 titled “The taste of cutlery: how the taste of food is affected by the weight, size, shape, and colour of the cutlery used to eat it”. This paper had some interesting and immediately useful results such as lighter cutlery made the product feel denser and more premium.
The main focus of this neurogastronomy research is how to make a “perfect” product when perception is enormously variable and influences can come from anywhere. Several prominent examples exist such as the 1985 trial of a “better” version of coca cola or the trials of peanut butter demonstrating how advertising and branding can influence perception of the product.
Examples of the influence of product perception on eating experience (Shrank, 2012)
While studying at The National University of Singapore, during the sensory module there, there was a similar test asking us to identify fruit flavours. The first round of this utilised drinks that were matched in terms of colour and flavouring, such as lime being green, strawberry being red and orange being orange. The second test switched this up, so none of the flavours matched their expected colouring. The result was that almost every student got the second test wrong and the answers varied wildly, some simply utilised the same answers as the first test while others decided that the flavours must be entirely new and made up a complete set of new flavours.
Throughout this class we were faced with challenges like this and every time, students got the answer wrong. However the tests were designed for us to answer wrongly. A further example of this was how the variation of colour in yoghurts can influence the perception of sweetness. A darker red in a strawberry yoghurt is perceived as being sweeter and the expectation is that it would contain more fruit when neither was the case.
Neurogastronomy also branches out to include how the influence of our other senses can affect the perception of taste and flavour. This branch of the science has been successfully used for quite some time by Heston Blumenthal in his “sound of the sea” dish. His experiments for television also show how the influence of sound affects how you eat; like when he played crunching sounds while trying to eat a soft food, it became difficult to eat at all.
This brings us back to the same question we posed before though; how can this be incorporated into the mass market? The answer is really quite simple. In knowing that additional colourings can make a yoghurt sweeter and seem like it has more fruit – when making cheaper yoghurts, an increase in colouring and a decrease in fruit might result in a better perceived product at a cheaper price. Choosing a lighter plastic if you are providing cutlery with your product can create a perception of quality.
In short it is up to industry and product developers to pay attention to this research and determine how best to make use of it. The examples given here are very limited and the research as a whole covers a wide area. It has become some of our go-to reading material when designing for industry but care also needs to be taken. As the example with Coca Cola shows, if you have a product that is set in stone when it comes to how your customers think it should be, it can be very difficult to change it for the better.
Harrar, V. & Spence, C. (2013). The taste of cutlery: how the taste of food is affected by the weight, size, shape, and colour of the cutlery used to eat it. Flavour. 2 (21), Online.
Schrank, J. (2012). Taste: Your Brain on Food. Available: http://www.slideshare.net/JeffSchrank/taste-your-brain-on-food. Last accessed 6/9/2015.