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A psychologist probes the invisible influences that shape the dining experience

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

Charles Spence
Viking
2017
336 pp.
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How often have you returned, in thought, to a sumptuous dinner eaten some time ago? It’s unlikely that you recall the specifics of the dishes you savored with such delight, but you undoubtedly remember how the meal made you feel, and you can probably recall the atmosphere in which it was consumed. This is, in fact, a common occurrence: The food itself is only one of the factors that influence your perception of a dining experience, and—much to the chagrin of chefs—not always the most important one.

Gastrophysics, by Charles Spence, deals with the wide range of factors that influence the eating experience. These can be intrinsic to the food item being consumed, such as the sound it makes when eaten—crackling sounds, for instance, being essential to our experience of a crispy food—or extrinsic. Examples of the latter include the way a food is presented (e.g., the size, shape, and color of a plate or the design and material of the food packaging) but also the setting in which it is consumed. As Spence shows, the lighting, smell, color, and sounds of a dining environment all influence how much you eat, how much you appreciate a given meal, and what you remember of the experience. Such knowledge is not only exploited by restaurateurs but also can be used to help improve the eating habits of patients in hospitals, for example.

WEBPHOTOGRAPHEER/ISTOCKPHOTO

The underwater Ithaa restaurant in the Maldives serves meals five meters below sea level.

In the book’s first chapters, the senses taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch are each individually discussed in their relation to the eating experience. The themes of the subsequent chapters are broader and include the history and future of airline food, the right (and wrong) way to create memorable meals, and food as part of a multisensory experience. Cultural aspects of food and diet, however, are largely left aside, as are several recent areas of interest, such as food pairing and oral food processing.

In chapter 7, Spence demonstrates that social factors have a major effect on how we eat and how we value the experience. Food habits, he shows, generally improve when eating in company: You are more likely to pay attention to what you eat and notice when you’re satiated and less likely to eat unhealthily when dining with others.

No one nearby to share a meal with? Modern technologies may provide at least a partial solution: Sharing a meal over Skype can still positively affect the eating experience. And nearly everyone is responsive to the personal touch: A sampling of a new dish, special attention from a waiter, or simply being welcomed by name can positively skew your assessment of a restaurant.

Much of Gastrophysics relies on sensory science, behavioral psychology, and economics as applied to eating, with excursions into cognitive neuroscience and experience management. The book concentrates heavily on results from Spence’s own research group and his interactions with chefs and other food professionals. The latter is where the book entertains, as Spence peppers the pages with amusing examples and compelling anecdotes.

Food itself does not feature prominently in this book, as the emphasis is on the extrinsic factors that influence eating. Those interested in learning how food composition, structure, and preparation method are exploited to give rise to specific sensory properties should look elsewhere (1, 2).

Unfortunately, Spence’s treatment of the science that underlies the experience of food is often casual. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example, has contributed far more to our understanding of taste perception and preference than is acknowledged in this book and has, for instance, been used to differentiate between the neural responses related to innate and acquired tastes.

Notwithstanding these limitations and several small but important errors, Gastrophysics is thought-provoking. One wonders what the effect would be if the same techniques used by marketers and restaurateurs to encourage diners to eat more were employed to encourage people to eat less or to eat more balanced meals.

References

  1. H. McGee, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Scribner, New York, ed. 2, 2004)

  2. P. Barham et al., Chem. Rev. 110, 2313 (2010)

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA 93407, USA.