Changing Taste with Sounds, Scents, Textures & Colors
Some things just go together – a crackling fire begs for a glass of whiskey; celebrations aren’t the same without champagne; a mellow evening at home goes hand in hand with a good Merlot. We know that food and emotions are forever intertwined, but can you actually change your perception of what the food or drink tastes like just by switching up the mood music and colors around you?
According to recent research conducted by molecular gastronomy professionals and scientists, you sure can! The study was conducted by Russ Jones, the Creative Director at Condiment Junkie, a sensory branding and sensory architecture company, and Carlo Velasco and Charles Spence of the University of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory.
Together they devised an experimental event called The Singleton Sensorium, in which they managed to prove how you can change the taste of something (namely whisky) by what they call 'sensory architecture'. "The sounds, scents, textures, colors in your environment greatly affect taste perception and enjoyment. I see this as an important element of food and drink development in the future." said Russ Jones who created the sound for Heston Blumenthal's "Sound of the sea dish" among many others.
Molecular gastronomy Chef Blumenthal uses sensory stimulation in the form of visuals, scents and sound to enhance the taste of his famous and creative dishes at The Fat Duck restaurant. In his signature dish "Sounds of the Sea", diners are presented with a plate of food that is reminiscent of a beach thanks to some foam, seaweed and sand. The diners are also given a sea-shell with an iPod hidden inside and just the headphones poking out. The diners are encouraged to put on the headphones (whereupon they hear the ‘sounds of the sea’ soundtrack) before starting to eat the dish.c
Molecular gastronomy chefs know that people eat with all five senses but it’s only recently that we’re really beginning to understand the extent that our senses interact to create our flavor perceptions. Specifically, sound, color, touch, and scent in the environment significantly alters how we taste. If you’d like to experiment with how environmental changes can alter the perception of taste, this next study offers some handy tips and tricks to help you use the environment to play with the senses of your diners. You can even play the soundtracks used in this study at home!
The Whiskey Research Project
If you think that whiskey tastes the same in any environment then you’re going to be a bit shocked by the results of this study. It’s officially proven that what you see, hear, and smell is also what you taste!
We have previously published the results of initial sensory research from Marcos Trevisan, physicist Mariano Sigman and pianist/mathematician Bruno Mesz which shows a consistent, mappable connection between food words and specific musical algorithms. In other words, certain food words are linked to specific sounds in our brains. (Music Generates Taste of Sour, Bitter, Sweet and Salty)
The research was so conclusive that it even worked in reverse: when listening to a musical piece, participants could accurately state which food word had been used as inspiration. Top chefs such as Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck are using this blend of neuroscience and psychology to push the concept of eating to levels nobody would have dared contemplate a decade ago.
In a more recent project called "A bittersweet symphony", The Fat Duck crew, Charles Spence and Russ Jones proved you can change how something tastes - from bitter to sweet - by changing the sound. Toffee samples tasted while listening to the presumptively ‘bitter’ soundtrack were rated as tasting significantly more bitter than when exactly the same foodstuff was evaluated while listening to the ‘sweet’ soundtrack instead.
Shapes can also have an impact on flavor. In another research project from Charles Spence, consumers match a variety of tastes (like bitterness, sweetness, and sourness), oral attributes (such as bubbles, oral texture, mouth-feel) and flavors to a great number of abstract shapes. We can name examples: typically, the rounded forms (e.g.circles) are associated with sweet tastes whereas more angular shapes (like triangles and stars) with bitter and/or carbonated foods and beverages. (Did You Know That Shapes Can Have an Impact on Flavor?)
For this new experimental event called The Singleton Sensorium, the research team used this past research to design 3 very different sensory rooms to see how much effect environment has on the sense of taste. They had a "Green" room, a "Sweet" room and a "Woody" room.
Green Flavors in the Green Room
Room 1, the green room, was designed to stimulate flavors of pears, apples, and cut grass on the nose. All senses were involved: music incorporating the sound of birds and an infrequent lawnmower along with other sounds that have been linked to “green” feelings was played in the background; green light tinted the entire room, there were modal “green” smells, and the atmosphere was slightly humid. Finally, there was grass on the floor and deck chairs and picnic baskets were used to decorate.
Sweet Flavors in the Sweet Room
Room 2, the sweet room, was designed to elicit a sweeter flavor. The room was red, all of the furniture and dishes were rounded with no corners, and the music in the background was composed using tinkling bells. The scent was an aldehyde smell that’s been shown to stimulate sweet perceptions.
Woodsy Flavors in the Woody Room
Room 3, the woody room, was decorated log-cabin style with lanterns, lots of real wood, trees, creaky floorboards and a real fireplace. Music was composed of the sounds of creaking wood, double bass, and a crackling fire. Light scents of vetiver and cedar stimulated the nose.
The Test and the Results
Once the rooms were established, guests traveled through the rooms, receiving a new sample of the same whiskey in each room. They didn’t know that it was the same whiskey each time. Throughout the event, they were asked to record their impressions of the drink.
There was a 20% increase in the targeted taste perception in each room: in the red room, the drink was 20% sweeter, in the green room, 20% greener, and in the woodsy room – which was reported to be the room where the whisky tasted the best – the whisky was 20% woodsier.
Manipulating the Senses at Home or in Your Restaurant
The link between flavors and environmental stimulators heralds an exciting time for people in the molecular gastronomy world, and for anybody else that likes to experiment and forge new culinary paths. If you’d like to give it a shot at home or at your restaurant, here are some guidelines from creative director Russ Jones to get you started.
Make Your Drink Taste Woodsy
This is great to bring out the woodsy, mellow flavors of a good whisky or scotch.
1 – Play music with a woodsy motif. If you’d like, you can use the one found here that was created just for this reason. If you’d rather use your own, choose music with the sounds of a crackling fire, creaking wood, and other woodsy sounds.
2 – If possible, light a fire or use candles and low lighting to perpetuate that campfire feeling.
3 – Have wood available to physically touch while you’re drinking. Rough wood planks, or even a piece of wood brought in from outside will work.
Make it Sweeter
Sweet is a taste that has many stimulators that can enhance the sensation. Here are just a few cues that you can use.
1 – Use red lighting. Not only is it fun, it makes everything sweeter!
2 – There’s a strong link between rounded edges and sweet flavors. Use a room with lots of curves and no sharp edges. Make sure that your plates, glasses and other accoutrements are rounded, even bulbous, if you want to make things sweeter.
3 – Play music that has high-toned percussion instruments that are played in a staccato fashion. The research that was conducted at the Fat Duck with Chef Heston Blumenthal made this connection. If you’d like to use the music created for the Sweet Room at the Sensorium, you can find it here.
In addition to sound, there is plenty of research to support the connections between flavors and shape and color. Music isn’t the only sound stimulator, either; Spence has shown that how crispy a chip sounds when you bite into it effects how you think it tastes. These are exciting times for those of us in the molecular gastronomy world, as well as anybody else that just loves to take food to the next level!
If you’d like to learn more, check out our other articles here: