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Eating using all your senses

Pomegranate Eating textural foods such as pomegranate is one way to reawaken the senses

We rely too much on one or two senses like taste and sight when picking and eating food, researchers say. But there is another, more enriching, way.

Do you choose or know what you are going to eat, just by looking at it?

Or do you taste, touch, smell it, or listen to the sound it may make?

People have forgotten to engage all their senses when selecting and eating food, meaning they are "disconnected" from it and their senses have become "lazy", say researchers at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy.

They are exploring ways of getting people to engage with food instead of just relying on sight.

Sensory overload

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Impress with onion ice cream with beef

When looking at food, colour conveys critical information about flavour "by providing clues as to edibility, flavour identity, and flavour intensity", an article in the Consciousness and Cognition journal says.

But the sensory expectations people have linking colour with flavour, may come from their prior experiences, researchers say.

Consumers default to relying on looking at food, as they are constantly bombarded with colour, noise, light and imagery while shopping or even at the table, to the point of a sensory overload, says Shona Jason Miller, a student at the university.

She says "there's so much going on, so we don't pay attention to little details", like the texture and smell of food.

Engaging our other senses can be difficult though.

Some shops do not encourage customers to touch produce, and smelling food can be hard in a packaged-goods era.

However tasting food and thinking about its flavour can be accessible, as many artisan producers allow customers to try before they buy.

How to pack a flavour punch

Green curry paste

Engage all your senses making Thai curry paste

Taste is influenced however.

There are now six tastes people can identify (salt, sweet, bitter, sour, umami - a savouriness - and fat) - but scientists may yet find more, says Professor Mirco Marconi from the university's Reggio Emilia campus.

"Actually we know very little about taste and overall taste," he says. "But our memory is fundamental in how our senses work."

Surprising palates with unexpected tastes is one way to get people to reconnect with what they are eating.

For an event at the recent Salone del Gusto in Italy, Professor Nicola Perullo's research team developed focaccia flavoured to taste like a negroni cocktail, mozzarella gelato with a tomato and basil confit, and a cocktail tasting of tiramisu to explore this.

As contemporary cuisine often features deconstructed dishes, there is more room to try food made with non-conformist or unexpected ingredients, says Jacqueline Blazer, another masters student.

"I worked in restaurants... where we also made mozzarella gelato or a dressing with fisherman's friends. Well known is the example of a praline bonbon with blue cheese in it. It's something people don't expect."

Start Quote

Eighty percent of what we perceive of the flavour of food is due to smell, 20% is down to just taste”

End Quote Dr Carl Philpott Smell and Taste Clinic specialist

You might be able to identify food by taste, smell or sight easily, but could you identify a food or drink from the sound it makes?

Some make no sound at all, but for others the sound of their preparation may give it away.

There are some foods for which sound is as important to their enjoyment as taste is - take crisps for instance.

"The perception of crispness is partly related to auditory sensations - as all crispy foods are noisy when eaten," say , Paul Varela and Susana Fiszman in the book The Kitchen as Laboratory.

Some researchers think sound can influence flavour.

Flavour perception should not be not defined by using just one sense, but rather by using all senses together, unifying them with the act of eating, research in the Consciousness and Cognition Journal suggests.

It should be used "to describe the combinations of taste, smell, the trigeminal system (the fifth cranial nerve, responsible for sensation in the face and motor functions such as biting, chewing and swallowing), and touch, to which we add visual and auditory cues, that also influence our perception when tasting food" the study says.

When one of our five senses is lost, like smell, other senses come in to play.

The six tastes:

Sugar

Taste buds are made up of 50-100 polarised neuroepithelial cells. Scientists have so far discovered humans have receptors to six tastes:

  • Sweet: Sweet-tasting foods signal the presence of carbohydrates that serve as an energy source
  • Salty: We can identify how the sodium chloride we eat, essential for maintaining the body's water balance
  • Bitter: Many people avoid bitterness in food, and it is thought to have developed to guard us against poisons, many of which are bitter
  • Sour: Sourness alerts the body to dietary acids. Spoiled foods can be acidic as well. However avoidance of acidic or bitter tastes can be overridden, such as those in coffee or citric acid
  • Umami: The fifth taste discovered in 1908 - a savoury taste or deliciousness. The main taste agent is glutamate and it reflects our protein intake
  • Fat: Was named as the sixth human taste when scientists revealed they had found a human taste receptor for it, in a study in January.

Dr Carl Philpott set up a Smell and Taste clinic at the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston, Norwich in 2010, helping people who have lost their sense of smell - a condition known as anosmia.

It can be caused by chronic sinus disease, following a head injury, or following the common cold, and sufferers can have varying degrees of a loss of smell.

"Eighty percent of what we perceive of the flavour of food is due to smell, 20% is down to just taste," he explains.

"Most people say if you can't taste it, you can't smell it."

After food lover Duncan Boak fell down a flight of stairs and hit his head, he found he could not smell anymore, and started a group called Fifth Sense for other anosmia sufferers.

While he still has some ability to taste food, Duncan says losing his sense of smell makes him question more than just whether we have forgotten how to eat using all our senses.

"I would question whether we really understand how we eat in the first place," he says.

Dr Carl Philpott says losing a sense of smell means sufferers "develop a different relationship and have to work harder to make food palatable".

Some anosmia sufferers choose to eat very hot and spicy food, but others feel they can no longer enjoy food, and become malnourished.

How can a sufferer enhance the experience of cooking and eating?

Dr Philpott suggests "using preparation to improve piquancy and using umami" - our fifth taste after salty, sweet, sour and bitter.

Duncan Boak takes a practical approach.

Chives with scissors Chopping herbs can help anosmia sufferers enjoy cooking again

Touching the food and understanding how it feels both raw and when cooked is key.

"I enjoy it by using contrast and basic tastes in my food - I think one way to do that is texture," he says.

"People often ask those who are deaf or blind, if another sense - like sight or hearing, improves to compensate for the one they don't have. I actually think I have a far better awareness of my palate than many others," he explains.

"I like to use the food to enjoy it. Chopping herbs - even if I don't get the flavour, but the very act of chopping herbs, sprinkling them over, it is a cognitive act.

"I understand the components and I understand the effect on my body and how to enjoy the food."

What is anosmia?

  • Anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial
  • Causes can include head trauma, nasal diseases, and upper respiratory viral infections
  • Anosmia sufferers can find their sense of taste disappears along with their loss of smell

Living with anosmia

Explore your health with the BBC

Find out more with Fifth Sense

He is currently developing recipes and tasting events, like one he held in Norwich recently, to encourage others lacking a sense of smell to connect with food again.

But what can other people do to reconnect with food?

Shona Jason Miller says: "I think often we are really in a hurry… so taking time to eat slowly so you can be more aware of your senses is really important."

Her colleague Jessica Pierce thinks "using all your senses together to really find out what things are about" is crucial.

"Not just judging things initially by sight, but also touching, listening, smelling, tasting," she says.

Next time you are shopping for food, or preparing it, perhaps try a little test.

Hold your nose when you are tasting something and see if its flavour is enhanced.

Chances are it will be.

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