What is the taste of roundness? What is the color of sweetness, or bitterness? These questions may sound like a case study in synesthesia, or a culinary zen koan (what is the sound of one hand clapping, and does it affect the taste of your potato chips?), but they’re real questions answered by the research of the influential British food scientist and professor Charles Spence. Born June 18th, 1969, Spencer is an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford and director of the university’s Crossmodal
Research Laboratory and the food science/‘gastrophysics’ think tank Kitchen Theory, where he and a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, psychologists, and chefs research and design multisensory dining experiences.
According to Spence, the term ‘gastrophysics’ is a combination of gastronomy and psychophysics, which studies the way sensory stimuli like light, colors, or sounds affect our experience. Gastrophysics, then, is the study of how an environment, like the design of a restaurant, the music being played, the tableware used, etc, can affect the way we experience a meal and even how the food itself tastes. Spence examines how dining environments can be designed with specific outcomes in mind, like
improving our experience of a meal, getting us to eat healthier, or even be open to the idea of eating insects.
As for the taste of roundness? According to Spence, it’s sweet. Research shows that meals served on round plates taste slightly sweeter, as do chocolate bars with rounded corners, and round vs. angular foam art on a cappuccino makes the coffee taste a bit less bitter. If, on the other hand, you wanted to accentuate a dish’s saltiness, you could serve it on a blue plate. Looking to cut back on calories?Serving food on red dishware, Spence explains, makes people eat smaller portions than on white.
But it’s not only visual cues that can shape the way foods taste—sound too plays an important role. In one of his more famous experiments, Spence discovered why tomato juice makes up 27% of beverage sales on airplanes. Even though it’s far from the most popular beverage on terra firma, one in four people will choose it on a plane because the loud noise of the jet engines and the low pressure environment increases our perception of savory umami flavors while reducing our perception of sweetness. In another (in)famous experiment, Spence showed that louder, higher pitched crunch sounds make potato chips taste 15% fresher, even when they’re from the same batch. The study, which has since been dubbed the ‘sonic chip’ experiment, earned Spence the Ig Nobel Prize, a parody award based on the Nobel Prize. Spence also showed that, during wine tastings, high pitched music brings out a wine’s sweetness while low, brassy sounds bring out deep chocolatey notes.
While each of our five senses are usually thought of and studied in isolation, Spence’s work, based on the latest insights from neuroscience, shows that the boundaries between them are fuzzy at best. It makes sense then, that there are a lot of applications for this research, from working closely with top chefs like Heston Blumenthal to marketing and even package design. While some chefs criticize his work, saying that good food should speak for itself, Spence insists that food is never experienced in isolation. Dining, he explains, is always a multisensory experience, and chefs already know this instinctually—otherwise they wouldn’t go through the trouble of providing heavy cutlery or spending so much effort on things like artful plating and interior design.
Charles Spence teaches Experimental Psychology at Oxford. He has published more than 600 peer-reviewed articles on topics ranging from neuroscience to design, and his work has won numerous awards. In 2015, he won the Prose Prose for Popular Science with his book The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining . His follow up book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating , is a comprehensive look at the field. He also works extensively as a marketing and branding consultant for major companies, including Starbucks, PepsiCo, Toyota, Nestle, and McDonalds, as well as for the European Space Shuttle. His work with the world’s top restaurants includes a long-time collaboration with Heston Blumenthal and The Paul Bocuse school and restaurant in Lyon, France.