Sweet or sour? Altering how we taste our food
- 16 April 2014
- From the section Business
What can you taste when you swirl a mouthful of malt whisky around your mouth? Peaty flavours, honey, sea salt? Talk to any whisky drinker and they'll be happy to discuss at length.
But it turns out that not all you are getting is down to your taste buds - or even your nose.
If you drink a glass of single malt in a room carpeted with real grass, accompanied by the sound of a lawnmower and birds chirping, and all bathed in green light, the whisky tastes "grassier".
Replace that with red lighting, curved and bulbous edges and tinkling bells and the drink tastes sweeter.
Best of all, creaking floorboards, the sound of a crackling fire and a double bass bring out the woody notes and give you the most pleasurable whisky experience.
That's all according to an experiment run for drinks giant Diageo - an experiment in a new field that is fascinating the food and drink industry.
"For a drinks company to think what does our whisky sound like, not just what does it taste like, opens a window to a whole lot of creativity," says Nik Keane, malt whisky global brand director for Diageo.
The company applied these new multisensory insights when designing its gift packs for 2014's Chinese New Year, introducing new colours and textures to the packaging.
"We are looking at bringing this to life on a long-term basis," says Nik Keane.
This new discipline has been labelled "neurogastronomy" by its best-known apostle, Prof Charles Spence, who runs the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University.
"Neurogastronomy is based on the realisation that everything we eat or drink is processed by our senses," he says.
"We see it, we hear it, we smell it, we taste it, we feel it. All those senses come together."
He advises experimental chefs like Heston Blumenthal, who first introduced the idea of listening to the sounds of the seaside to enhance the flavours of a seafood dish.
Prof Spence found he could skew diners' perceptions of Heston's famous egg and bacon ice cream, by first playing chicken sounds and then the sound of sizzling rashers.
With world-renowned Spanish chef, Ferran Adria, he focused on the colour of the crockery.
Guests sat down one side of a large table were given a pink strawberry dessert on a white plate. Down the other side of the table guests ate an identical dessert from a black plate.
Those eating from the white plates rated the dessert as 10% sweeter than those who ate from the black plates.
Subsequent experiments have shown that introducing a square or angular plate intensifies the difference, with roundness accentuating sweetness.
At the House of Wolf, a pop-up restaurant in a slightly faded, Bohemian pub in Islington, London, another experiment has made quite a splash.
There, they served a dessert of cinder toffee lollies and invited guests to use their mobiles to ring one of two numbers.
At the end of one phone line was music designed to enhance sweetness - at the other a tone to emphasise bitter notes.
It seems we associate higher notes, flutes and tinkling piano, with sweetness - deeper, more resonant tones evoke bitterness.
These kind of revelations might affect how you present food in a restaurant, but it is also getting businesses thinking.
A Colombian business selling tens of thousands of plates of sushi every day has been discussing with Prof Spence whether its wares will fare better on black or white plastic trays.
Starbucks was so intrigued by the sound experiment they commissioned a special playlist for customers to listen to while enjoying a new Starbucks instant coffee at home.
Its recommendations ranged from Puccini's Nessun Dorma for opera fans, to Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.
Big food companies are also taking note, and have begun researching the way our sensory perceptions combine to affect what we taste.
At Nestle's research centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, scientists showed people pictures of high calorie foods like pizza and pastry.
They found the testers then enjoyed the subsequent taste of a new food much more than when they had been primed with pictures of watermelon or green beans.
"We are beginning to learn about these things," says Johannes Le Coutre, a perception physiologist with Nestle.
"We don't know necessarily what will come out at that end, but clearly contextual perception is a big opportunity."
Nestle has also played around with the shape of chocolate and found that, too, can affect its flavour.
Based on something they call "mouth geometry", a curved piece of chocolate has been shown to melt in the mouth better and to release different flavours.
"The entire idea is to say we have individual pieces that fit more snugly onto the tongue," says Johannes.
"And the idea is that if you have a chocolate like that you positively influence flavour release."
Confectionary rival Cadbury learned this lesson the hard way.
Two years ago it changed the shape of Dairy Milk bars from the original angular chunks to more rounded shapes to encourage them to melt in the mouth.
However, the firm was then barraged with complaints from consumers who believed it had changed the recipe.
For Nestle and others, the greatest opportunities are likely to come in the form of improving the nutritional balance of their foods.
Researchers at Marmite to Magnum food group, Unilever, found they could make a cube of cheese taste saltier simply by adding aromas of other salty foods such as sardines.
They're hoping to use this insight to reduce salt in common food products without losing customers.
"The over-riding question driving the team's research is - can we produce equally tasty, satisfying, pleasurable products using lower levels of fat, salt and sugar?" says Dr Anna Thomas, Unilever's principal investigator.
"And their response is very much in the affirmative."