Interview with Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Somerville College
Can you explain what exactly experimental psychology and multisensory foods are?
Gastrophysics: the new science of eating is all about combining the best in food experiences (that is the gastronomy part) with the latest in psychology/measurement science (that is the psychophysics part).
This new approach to the design of multisensory food experiences is brought about by a growing recognition that the pleasures of the table reside mostly in the mind and not in the mouth – that realization changes everything.
How are your research and study related to food perception?
Once you realize that flavour perception occurs in the mind not the mouth, then the strategy for increasing appreciation changes. One shifts, for example, from thinking about palate cleansers that cut through who knows what on the tongue (think of the acidic sorbet) with the mental palate cleanser – something to get the diners into a good mood before they eat.
How our mind and our culture can influence our approach to a new food?
Well, I think we are all born making the same responses to the basic tastes – sweet and umami we like, salt we learn to like, and sour and bitter we are born disliking. That is pretty much all the tongue gives us. Our responses to olfactory stimuli are largely learned – and hence cultural differences in terms of which aromas are paired with a swweet tastes, say, in different cultures may well lead to cultural differences in people’s preferences for different foods later in life.
What’s the trigger of the “yuk” factor? What can we do to control it?
Well, often it is not obvious, i.e., it is not what we think.
Everyone in the west hates the idea of eating insects. But what is it exactly that they dislike?
It can’t be the taste because we have only 5 basic tastes. It is unlikely to be smell, as most edible insects don’t have a distinctive aroma. Is it the crunch? Well, that is normally something that people like in their snack foods. I think we need to stop grouping the 3 thousand or so different kinds of edible insects as one, and instead start to draw a distinction between more or less desirable types. Most of us like honey, many of us already eat royal jelly, and propolin – all, note, bee products… So, maybe bee-related insect matter is the way in?
Do you think that food-styling could be more effective to overcome the “yuk” factor than the best informations campaign about the values of the food that generates the disgust?
Absolutely. Food styling is key.
In the Uk alone, more than 40% of people take immages of the food they eat when dining out, and post those images on their social media channels. This is great in terms of free advertising for the chef or restaurant.
We have also conducted research with young franco-colombian chef Charles Michel to show that making dishes more attractive visually really can enhance liking, and that is equally true no matter whether there are insects in the mix or not.
How understanding human mind could lead to a better design for multisensory foods?
Knowing what the mind likes is a key. Note that it is not about constraining culinary creativity, but providing evidence-based solutions – evaluting different platings of the same ingredients say, to see which people prefer.
It is really exciting currently to see hown many young chefs from around the world are becoming increasingly exciting by the new gastrophysics approach – no matter what you put on the plate, or in the glass, you also need to know what is going on in the mind of the diner in order to deliver the tastiest food experience.
Edible insects are surely the prototype of new food in need of “normalization”. What can you suggest to the companies of the industry to make their products overcome the “yuk” factor?
Well, there are two obvious routes here. On the one hand, take a leaf from the health by stealth approach – just think about how the cereal producers managed to substantially reduce salt, by doing it so gradually that the consumer never realized.
Alternatively, the other approach is to draw attention to edible insects. To their tasty properties. Telling people that they should, or that it is good for the planet is unlikely to change behaviour. But stressing the enjoyable sensory properties might work much better.
What’s the future of edible insects as food in the west?
Hard to say. On the one hand, I don’t see any of the big companies really engaging with edible insect protein. I am guessing that success will come from the small start-ups or modernist chefs, testing the boundaries of what is acceptable/enjoyable, and then the big companies will jump in later.