When most people think of eating, they usually associate this with our sense of taste. However, it’s now understood that all of our senses interact when we eat, and in fact, eating is an even more multisensory experience than being on a rollercoaster!
Although eating fulfills our basic need to give nourishment to the body, it’s much more than that. Eating is a social, enjoyable, entertaining experience. But if one part of the experience is disturbed or altered it can change our whole perception of the food we’re eating.
A fascinating series – ‘The Uncommon Senses’ – has recently been aired on BBC Radio 4 by Philosopher Barry Smith, where he delves into the complexity of how our senses interact (1).
Did you know that ice cream can taste creamier depending on the texture of the fabric you’re feeling at the same time, or that wine tastes different depending which hand you drink it from?
It’s easy to imagine how restaurants will use research like this to create that perfect ambiance for dining, but can these discoveries be applied to our everyday life, and can it be used to support those who are finding eating difficult who may be suffering from health-related problems?
Where are you eating?
The environment that we eat in will influence our enjoyment of food – that’s easy to imagine – but did you know that food can actually taste different and flavours can appear to change because you’re being influenced by what’s around you? Our senses will pick up on all sorts of cues from our surroundings: the colours, the brightness of the lighting and how loud the noise is around you.
Dr Smith explains how you can eat a sandwich at a busy train station and the sandwich will taste bland and forgettable, however, if you were to take the same sandwich and eat it outside on a park bench then you would be influenced by the smell and noise around you and the sandwich will actually taste different – better.
Many of us grab lunch ‘on the go’ as we lead our busy lives. If we were to make a simple change by choosing somewhere less busy and quieter to eat, for example away from the office, and instead sit outside or somewhere away from the usual chaos, we can feel more satisfied and value the meal a whole lot more. Could the increased enjoyment of your meal and the more memorable taste sensation curb the cravings for snacking later on? Just a thought!
Sound is described as the ‘forgotten flavour sense’. Sound can influence our perception of the texture of food in our mouth, and loud noises can suppress our ability to taste. Eating in a really loud environment, including listening to loud, up-beat music or just generally being in a noisy room, may not be helpful if you’re struggling with your appetite as food may start to lose its taste. This could also be an important factor to consider for anyone who suffers from taste changes, for example those who are going through cancer treatment where taste changes can be a side effect of therapy. Some people suffering with cancer find that food tastes overly sweet or salty, and that food may lose its taste completely. Whilst there are many excellent tips you can try to make food more enjoyable (2), the sound around you may also be something to consider.
Interestingly, musical pitch can alter the intensity of certain tastes. Higher pitched piano music will make the food taste sweeter, whilst low brass instruments will create a more bitter taste. Could listening to certain music produce a sweeter taste and reduce our need for sweet foods? Or conversely, could certain music make food more appetising and help those struggling to eat consume more? I wonder if playing certain music during mealtimes in nursing homes or hospitals would enhance taste and improve intake of food.
How is food presented?
One experiment demonstrated that a strawberry mousse tasted sweeter, more flavourful and was more enjoyable when it was served on a round white plate compared to being served on a black round plate. It sounds a bit like a magic trick!
There are so many other examples to show how we taste things differently depending on how it’s presented, like how wine can taste sharper if the writing on the bottle uses angular, rather than rounder letters.
Subtle changes in the way we present food can change the way that it’s received, and this is particularly important in some situations, as with people suffering with dementia. Colour is very useful when creating a dementia friendly environment and using contrasting colours can stop food from being ‘lost’ on the plate, for instance, if macaroni cheese was served on a white plate. In fact, contrasting the colour of the food, plate and table cloth can help orientate dementia patients making it easier to eat, whereas patterned designs can be confusing (3).
Heavier dishes can make the meal feel more substantial, for example, a weighted bowl will make a yoghurt taste creamer than a lighter, finer bowl. Manipulating the cutlery and dishes could make a lower fat, lighter dish feel more substantial and possibly more appetising. When striving to make healthy choices, I wonder whether this kind of thing will be something we will consider in the future – a ‘healthy choices’ plate and cutlery set – who knows?!
1. Think about where you are eating – maybe take your lunch outside or away from your desk space if possible – your lunch could taste more flavourful, and keep you feeling satisfied for longer.
2. Avoid loud, noisy, up-beat music if you are struggling with your eating or supporting someone with a poor appetite.
3. Music and sounds can transform how you taste certain foods. This could be used to help support people with a poor appetite or taste changes.
4. Consider the presentation of food – contrasting colours will help create a dementia friendly mealtime.
Written by Lilia Malcolm, April 2017
1. BBC Radio 4 – The Uncommon Senses – Dinnertime: A Multisensory Extravaganza!
2. Macmillan ‘If you have taste changes’
3. The Alzheimers Society. Eating and Drinking; The Eating Environment