28 April 2017

Sounds Affect Taste

Welcome back. Let’s eat. Wait!

Four plus years ago, I blogged about a Cornell University study that found softening the music and lighting in a fast-food restaurant had no effect on what people ordered, but diners ate less of what they ordered and rated the food more enjoyable (Fast Food Dining). 


That outcome may not have surprised you, but how about this: Research underway elsewhere at the time was learning that sounds affect taste--our five sensitivities, sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. 

The five tastes (kitchencounterpodcast.com/introduction-five-tastes/)

Are you with me? Here’s an example of recent work that should help. (Alas, I’m forced to write again about chocolate.)

An international team of collaborators led by an investigator from Belgium’s Vrije Universiteit Brussel had 116 test participants taste the same identical chocolate twice, each time listening to one of two music soundtracks. Although the different soundtracks did not appear to affect the overall enjoyment of the chocolates, the ratings of perceived creaminess and sweetness were higher for one of the soundtracks while ratings of perceived bitterness were higher for the other soundtrack.

None of the participants had synesthesia, the neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (e.g., hearing) leads to involuntary experiences in a second pathway (e.g., vision). The soundtracks were produced specifically to induce the observed crossmodal affects based on earlier research.

Earlier Work
For a glimpse of some of that earlier research, I’ll focus on work by researchers at the UK’s University of Oxford.

In 2010, they published a study in which 34 test participants preferentially associated sweet and sour tastes to high-pitched notes and umami and bitter tastes to low-pitched notes. The participants also consistently matched the type of musical instrument most appropriate for each taste, such as brass with bitterness.

That same year, they also published a status review of laboratory and field research that demonstrated what we hear (i.e., music, sounds we make while eating, or even pure tones or bursts of white noise) can have a marked effect on our perceptions of food and drink, including consumption speed and amounts, preference ratings and flavor assessments.

In 2012, the Oxford investigators published an update on their status review as well as a study that provided the first convincing empirical demonstration that a background soundtrack could modify the taste of a food.

For that study, they had 20 test participants evaluate four pieces of the exact same cinder toffee. The samples tasted while listening to a soundtrack designed to be more crossmodally matched with bitter-tasting food were rated as tasting significantly more bitter than the samples tasted while listening to a soundtrack designed to be more compatible with sweet-tasting food.

Wrap Up
The research continues, and it extends more broadly to flavor. (Taste refers to our five physically defined sensitivities; flavor is a subjective measure of pleasure, involving taste, aroma, texture and more.)

In his 2015 review of sound and perceived flavor, the lead Oxford researcher described how research has revolutionized our understanding of the importance of what we hear to our enjoyment of food and drink. He cited work on the sounds of mastication (chewing), carbonation, creaminess and even squeaks (certain cheese). 

  
Crispy, crunchy potato chips
(multiple websites)
An example of one study he reviewed and for which he was a co-investigator is a 2004 test of sound and eating potato chips. Although the chips were identical, on biting the chips, test participants rated them significantly crisper and fresher when the sound they heard through closed-ear headphones was increased and, of course, staler and softer when the sound was reduced.

OK, now we can eat. Please choose the music. And thanks again for stopping by.

P.S.
-Belgian-led study on music and chocolate taste in Appetite journal: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666316306134

(You can sample and learn more about the soundtracks at www.thesoundofchocolate.be/)
-2010 Oxford study of sound and taste in Attention, Perception & Psychophysics journal: link.springer.com/article/10.3758%2FAPP.72.7.1994
-2010 Oxford review of sound and taste in Journal of Sensory Studies: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-459X.2009.00267.x/abstract
-2012 Oxford review of sound and taste in Physiology Behavior journal: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22579696
-2012 Oxford study of music and cinder toffee taste in Food Quality and Preference journal: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0950329311001807
-2015 Oxford review of sound and flavor in Flavour journal:
flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2044-7248-4-3

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