Gastrophysics: Hidden Sides of Palatability

NCU Oct 2017 Gastrophysics article

A review of a new book – Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating
Featured article in the Fall 2017 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Richard Kahn, PhD, RD


Make a Sandwich
What makes that egg sandwich palatable? Toasted artisanal bread cut in arranged triangles, cooking skills or melted cheese? While flavor does play a part, its role is less than we think.  Professor Charles Spence’s new book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating has research suggesting that molten protein foods like runny yolks, melting cheese and care in arranging food on the plate play bigger roles than you might think. Gastrophysics, Spence says, is “the scientific study of those factors that influence our multisensory experience while tasting food and drink.”

Spence directs Oxford University’s Crossmodal Food lab. He leads studies on the environmental and other factors that determine our food preferences. A fundamental neuroscientific fact underlies his work. Taste sensation takes up about 1% of the brain. The eyes alone take up about 50% and play a bigger part in preference, though and hearing, as in music and crunch, play a bigger role than previously thought. The book is a great resource for clinicians and parents once you figure out how to apply the chatty presentation in clinical dietetics and at home. One set of clinically surprising findings is that music enhances the flavor of food. Such findings swarm in his book.

Morning Coffee and Eggs
For the most part, the food and beverage industry funds Spence’s research into the hidden sensory and subliminal dimensions driving eating behavior.  He also has a team of famous British chefs that share in his projects. Chefs and scientists share an interest in paying attention to detail. The mix provides a sensitive touch to his work and thought. No wonder some airlines use his approach to improve in-flight meals.

Let’s start with improving your morning coffee. Coffee’s biggest pleasure comes from the aroma that titillates the retronasal part of the oral cavity he says. The plastic lid covering your farm-sourced, artisan-brewed java blocks the olfactory pleasure. Gourmets noticed the olfactory feature in other beverages. An arsenal of special glasses for wine varietals and liqueurs, like sherry schooners, exist to concentrate fragrances. Beer benefits from less than full glasses in order to appreciate their aroma. To overcome the loss of aroma, Spence finds the old-fashioned, lidded steins provide quantity while holding onto the brew’s fragrance. Japanese tea masters teach participants to hold an unlidded tea bowl tilted close to the nose to appreciate tea’s mild aroma. His research supports some food traditions and he takes things one step further.

Eggs get a modern mention from market research that can be applied at home. Research indicates that showing high protein foods in motion, like dripping yolks and melting, cheesy lasagna leads to increased sales and consumption. Our brain is hardwired to equate motion with freshness. From the parent perspective, more is gained by modeling and goo than preaching.

Blue Plates and Alzheimer’s
In a pre-publication article for the journal Flavour, Spence reviews gastrophysics in the hospital setting. Simply using blue plates and increasing the contrast of colors between the plate and the food, for example, increases consumption in Alzheimer’s patients by 25%. Centering food on a plate also increases consumption. Neither of these factors have anything to do with flavor or textures. That’s neat support for the role of subliminal factors in appetite even in those with severe cognitive impairments.  Such low cost inducements are worth their weight in gold. Older hospital patients come in with nutrient and weight deficiencies in spite of the overall obesity epidemic.

Spence’s love of food paints a wide canvas that deepens clinicians’ understanding of hidden factors that determine eating behavior. He contextualizes contemporary research with historic gastronomes such the Roman, Apicius, and France’s 18th century Brillat-Savarin.  Gastrophysics, for me, provides additional science to support mindful eating which is rooted in the Japanese tea ceremony. Spence, meanwhile, roots his research in the work of the Futurists, a 1930s Italian art movement. The Futurists created all kinds of imaginative food presentation effects that are being revived or re-discovered by modern chefs. Futurists covered rooms in aluminum foil, a new product then.  In the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, the founding Japanese tea master, created a special tea room with walls covered with gold foil. He was criticized for extravagance. In our time, metallic shine is known to increase appetite. Foil on food is one of Spence’s top 10 ways to apply gastrophysics for the fun at heart. Use science to make believe you are an artist, tea master or to become a more effective clinician.