Anything food related usually excites our senses and our tummies. Recently while watching Hell’s Kitchen -a cooking competition hosted by Gordon Ramsey- the contestants had a challenge where they were blindfolded with earmuffs. The contestants then had to try different bites of food and determine what the food was. With easy items like cheddar cheese, chicken, and green beans. I thought it would be easy for them to guess. It turned out I was wrong, and some contestants only got 1 of 4 items right. As I kept watching, I wondered what affects our tastes, and how our senses help us distinguish what we are eating.
In a video called “Food, the Brain and Us; Exploring our historical, cultural and sensory perceptions of food” Professor Barry Smith -along with a historian, neuroscientist, artist and chef – explore the dimensions of food and taste. In the opening speech, Barry Smith says that
“Food has many dimensions; it is an historical object with economic value, it is a cultural object, with chemical and perceptual properties and for this reason it brings together the sciences arts and humanities. How it is present, its aesthetics, how we enjoy it, how it works on us and how we grow it are all important elements which contribute to how we enjoy food” (Smith).
Food has become a constant subject. There are so many different ways in which food is used -we study the nutritional content, we snap instagram pictures, and create delicious things to eat. Food has become the center for social gatherings for both parties and for scientists. The topic of food is so versatile that food is a common ground that everyone can talk about. Yet not everyone has the same opinions about food because various foods have different memories or tastes to multiple people.
Eating food is a multi-sensory activity because it engages our senses of taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch, which can affect the flavors we perceive. Looking at our senses sight plays a big role because we can see if it looks appealing or not. Presentation of food plays a key role in whether or not we decide to try something new. Then we have hearing. While we don’t normally think of hearing as a sense when it comes to food, hearing can affect our perception and enjoyment of food by impacting issues of whether or not something is fresh. A crisp bite of bell pepper means it is fresh, but a limp and soft bite of bell pepper means it is over ripe and not high quality. Then we have touch. When we taste something we often feel the texture of the food. If we can feel a limp vegetable, we will make up our minds about how it will taste and feel in our mouths. If we find it unacceptable, we will simply choose another vegetable that we find more appealing to our senses.
How often have you eaten food without doing anything more than perceiving the flavor? I have done that plenty of times, and sometimes I find myself surprised when I taste something other than what I expected. Color is one of the first things we notice in the appearance. Since birth we have associated certain colors with different types of food, and from there we equate certain colors to various tastes and flavors throughout life. In an experiment conducted in the early 1970’s people were served an oddly tinted meal of steak and fries that appeared normal beneath colored lights. Everyone thought the meal tasted fine until they changed the lighting and people saw the steak and fries were actually green and blue. After seeing the food, the customers felt ill. (Schlosser). As humans, we have relied heavily on visual aid to help us determine what is edible and what it should taste like. Without sight, we have to rely on other senses.
Another sense we rely on is smell. While the human tongue can detect sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umani, we use smell to detect whether or not we will like it, and the freshness of the food (How Smell Affects). The aromas from food go through our olfactory which is then translated to our brain. From there, we decided whether or not the smell is appealing enough for us to try it or to be disgusted by the scent. I know that for some people the smell of sautéed mushrooms is disgusting and they hate it. But for others it reminds them of their home and they love it. Smell also elicits memories. A good smelling fruit like pineapple can remind us of the tropics or the beach, while the smells of grease might remind us of fast food restaurants.
An interesting sense that I learned about is hearing affecting the taste of food. Different sounds affect the way we enjoy food, like background noise. In a bbc article it was found during an experiment that the “level of background noise affects both the intensity of flavor and the perceived crunchiness of foods” (Palmer). It was found that the louder the music the strength of salt or sugary flavors decreased while the crunchiness increased. This means that people would perceive the food to be fresher because of how crunchy an item is. It also could mean the background noise is taking away your attention from what you are eating to what is happening around you. If restaurants have a softer background music people might pay attention to what they are eating and what it tastes like. The noise we hear can affect how we pay attention to food and some restaurants use that to their advantage.
Our senses affect the way we eat food. Even though overtime we start to loose some of our senses, we rely on other senses to tell us how our food is. Food is powerful because it has become such a huge center of focus. The way we perceive food is different for everyone but ultimately we all use at least one of our senses to determine how much we enjoy eating a food dish. And as we eat, we should pay more attention to the tastes of our food and how it makes us feel. If we don’t pay attention, we are filling our bodies with food that isn’t necessarily good for us. But using our senses can help us determine whether or not a fruit or vegetable is fresh or of high quality.
“How Smell Affects Taste.” Scented and Flavored Packaging. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 June 2014.
Palmer, Jason. “Background Noise Affects Taste of Foods, Research Shows.” BBC News. BBC, 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 June 2014.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Barcelona: Debolsillo, 2007. Print.
Smith, Barry, prod. “Food, the Brain, and Us: Exporing Our Historical, Cultural, and Sensory Perceptions of Food.” The Royal Insitution. 7 Nov. 2013. Television.