Gastrophysics is the combination of gastronomy and psychophysics – gastronomy being the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to man as he eats, and psychophysics being the branch of psychology that deals with the relations between physical stimuli and mental phenomena.
Those researching gastrophysics are inspired by the neuroscience, but are much more interested in studying people’s real-world food behaviours. Ultimately this research has the ability to give us a greater understanding of the relationship we have with food and the food choices we make on a day to day basis, that may be beneficial for our health and the environment.
Over the course of the next few pages of this article we aim to demystify this term by looking at the science and practical applications which exist in the food industry as well as taking a look at how these ideas are being put into practice by some of the worlds most forward thinking chefs.
So if that has whet your appetite in some way, read on to the next page to understand a broader definition of Gastrophysics.
Looking at a broader definition of the term ‘Gastrophysics’.
Gastrophysics is a field of study concerned with new science of the table – the study of ‘the everything else’, the study of ‘off-the-plate dining’. Those who research Gastrophysics are inspired by the neuroscience, but are much more interested in studying people’s real-world food behaviours as much as possible.
The research results in a greater understanding of perceptions and associations we build with food, which ultimately helps us understand the relationship we have with food and the food choices we make on a day to day basis.
Innovative chefs are now working with scientists to understand these concepts and use them to develop even more entertaining, satisfying and enjoyable experiences. These chefs are taking a more holistic approach when it comes to planing their guest’s experience. Menu, dining room setting, colours, lighting, music, cutlery, service and every last detail related to the dining experience and the diners journey is all meticulously thought out. The goal is to stimulate the senses, and impact the diner on a multitude of levels from flavour appreciation to emotional engagement.
To begin with it is important to understand why the senses are important in the first place!
Humans can only make sense of life, interact and communicate using their senses. We have no other way of receiving information – which forms our perspective and reality. Life therefore can be seen as a continuous series of sensory experiences which create our existence.
Eating (particularly ‘dining’) is considered among the most sensory of all activities in which we part take. We draw on all our senses when we eat; sight, smell, touch, taste and sound.
Depending on the sensory cues of a food we make several judgments; so a very simple example would be a long shaped, yellow-ish food that smells of isoamyl acetate (a main aroma compound in bananas) – immediately we could identify that as a banana (as long as we have been exposed to bananas previously). Now before eating this banana we will have certain expectations; if the skin has strong green tones we would expect it to be unripe, a yellow skin with a few brown spots would indicate it is ripe or perhaps over ripe, if it is totally brown we would assume it to be decaying.
These visual cues set further expectations regarding texture; so when we peel the unripe banana it should expose a firm pale yellow flesh, the ripe banana will likely have a softer texture and slightly more yellow colour, and as for the brown over ripe banana we would expect something quite mushy and ‘bruised’. In the meanwhile all of this will set expectations in our mind regarding the freshness, quality, nutritional content, sweetness, flavour and the overall satisfaction derived from consuming the product.
So the above is a good demonstration on how colour cues alone can set all sorts of expectations! Crisps, or crunchy foods of any type are a great example of the importance of sound when we make judgments on that food’s quality and desirability.
Based on research (for which he won a highly coveted IgNobel prize in 2008) Professor Spence found he could make a 15 percent difference in people’s perception of a stale chip’s freshness by playing them a louder crunch when they bit into it. Other researchers conducted tests in the Netherlands and Japan in which they asked volunteers to crunch on chips in time with a metronome, while researchers played crunching sounds back, in perfect synchrony, through their headphones.
All was well until the researchers replaced the crunching with the sound of breaking glass—and “people’s jaws just freeze up!!”
Our next page in this series will look at the potential for gastrophysics to aid in improving the world’s growing health/dietary issues.
The potential for gastrophysics to aid in improving the world’s growing health/dietary issues.
Those researching gastrophysics are interested in studying people’s real-world food behaviours, and this gives us key insights into our relationship with food which may help us to develop foods which are not only healthier and more sustainable, but which do not mean compromising on perceived taste and flavour.
For anyone who has been on a diet (for weight loss reasons or otherwise) will understand that much of the difficulty in sticking to a diet is psychological. So physically you can stop yourself from reaching for that extra biscuit or adding that extra spoon of sugar to your coffee, but sometimes the difficulty is more in the emotional and psychological issues that one must overcome to resist such temptations.
So with that said it is easy to see how having an understanding of food and eating perception/relationships can potentially help in solving some of the increasing health issues we are facing globally. Obesity and malnutrition have already become a serious issue on a global scale. Even in what are regarded as developed countries such as the UK a study published in The Lancet (Sept 2015) outlined:
Britain’s junk food diet has become the leading cause of death and ill-health, ahead of smoking. The research shows that 40 per cent of NHS resources are spent dealing with ills caused by potentially preventable lifestyle factors such as unhealthy eating habits, obesity, alcohol and smoking.
In the meantime Prof Kevin Fenton, the PHE director of Health and Wellbeing, said:
“As a nation we are eating far too many fats and far too much sugar. Our salt intake, although it has been decreasing over time, is still at a level where we would like to see further decreases because that is going to have a huge impact on cardiovascular disease, blood pressure and stroke outcomes. We do recognise that this is not going to be down to families alone. We have much greater gains that can be made in working with the industry.”
Most people needed to reduce their calorie intake, he said, given that 62 per cent of adults are overweight or obese. (see full article The Telegraph).
What is most concerning is
“Almost one in 10 children in Reception are obese – but what’s even more shocking is that by the time they leave primary school, this doubles to nearly one in five.” (see the full article BBC).
Now enough of the depressing outlook! On the next page we look at how Gastrophysics can potentially be a part of the solution in combating diet and nutrition related health issues.
Potential Applications Of Gastrophysics To Combat Diet and Nutrition Related Health Issues.
In a study conducted by professor Spence with the Alicia foundation it was found that diners who ate an identical red mousse off both a black plate and a white plate rated the mousse to be up to 12% sweeter when it was served on the white plate! With this in mind would it not be possible to reduce the amount of sugar in a dish or food product simply by augmenting the colour of the food or even the packaging, in doing so it may allow the consumer to believe they are enjoying the same level of sweetness without all the sugar!
What about our growing concern with high sodium levels in processed foods. Research which is currently being conducted would suggest that rougher textures such as sandpaper bring out saltiness in a dish. This may mean that simply eating with a slightly grainy textured spoon would allow us to reduce the salt in our diet without really feeling its absence!
As for sustainability; in the past few years the world has become more familiar with the concept that entomophagy (eating insects) offers a more sustainable source of protein in comparison to intensive animal farming. However in many countries around the world we simply do not see insects as food, to many people the idea is repulsive.
The chef and the scientist have been working to overcome this negative perception by developing a worm butter which they served to Kitchen Theory’s guests at the start of their meal with the bread. They used butter as a medium for delivering the worm for several reasons; it took the insect out of its natural form, butter is an ingredient they knew their guests would be familiar with and most importantly we all like the fatty creamy flavour of butter. Much to their surprise the worm butter was consumed in higher volume than the salted butter served along side it and most interestingly a high number of vegetarians ate the butter! In fact this experiment worked so well that for the following Kitchen Theory concept entitled Mexico 4 of the 7 dishes contained insects in various forms (most of which remove all visual cues), guest were given a choice to opt out if they did not want to try the insects; however the response was excellent with around 85% of guests opting in for the insect menu.
So these are just a few ways in which gastrophysics could potentially be a part of the solution for getting our diet and nutritional well being back on track!