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Finally, Some Research That Makes Sense!

October 20, 2010

Every once in a while I come across a report about some sort of mind boggling research that some academic has conducted.   Like the guy who attempted to link the obesity epidemic with increasing portion sizes in paintings of the Last Supper.  Or the guy who advocates etching an outline of a fly in public urinals because men will aim at the fly and as a result “spillage” will be decreased by 80%.  The report I saw made this assertion but didn’t explain how the measurements were made.  Or by whom.

Usually I end up wondering how the people who do this research got the money to do it.  But the other day I found some research that although a little bizarre, could have major benefits for civilization.

A psychology professor at Manchester University decided to study the effect that sound has on our ability to taste our food.

As a person who is put off by restaurants where music is blasted from speakers strategically located above each table, I read the findings with interest.

They found that when we are subjected to ‘white noise,’ we lose the ability to taste our food.  The airlines (who may well have paid for the study) are ecstatic because now they have a scientific explanation why airplane food is so bad—actually, it’s really pretty good but because the engines and ventilation system of an aircraft create a lot of white noise, we just can’t taste it!

Apparently there has been a lot of debate on how sound affects our sense of taste.  There is a celebrity chef named Heston Blumenthal, who I must admit I’d never heard of, who has taken the idea to its illogical conclusion.  At his restaurant when you order a certain seafood dish, it comes with an iPod (which I don’t think you get to keep) that has sounds of the ocean on it.  You listen to the iPod while eating your seafood special and it is supposed to taste better.

At first I thought that wouldn’t be something you should order on your first date because it might be a bit anti-social to listen to an iPod while eating.  But it turns out that this seafood dish is part of a 17 course meal so you won’t be tuned out all night.  In fact the whole thing is a real extravaganza—the seafood dish is served on a crate with a glass top.  The crate is filled with what looks like sand and seashells (to remind you that you are eating seafood). 

But guess what?  It’s not sand!  It’s a mixture of tapioca, breadcrumbs, “crushed fried baby eels, cod liver oil and langoustine oil topped with abalone, razor clams, shrimps and oysters and three kinds of edible seaweed.” 

I guess that means you can eat it.  But all I can think of is my mother’s old admonition:  Don’t play with your food!

It gets better.  For people who haven’t yet figured out that they are eating seafood, they “have the juices from the shellfish [yuck] made into a foam and placed along one side of the tapioca dish, so it looks like the sea.  Alongside the dish we’ll serve a glass of seaweed extraction [double yuck] and mirin, which will give diners a massive umami hit.”

I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.

Anyway, back to sound and food, at first I was happy, thinking that restaurants would take heed and turn down the noise so that we have a chance to (1) taste our food and (b) talk to each other while eating.

But on second thought, I think we may be doomed after all.  The accountants responsible for restaurants’ bottom lines will put two and two together.  Realizing that loud music means we can’t taste the food properly means that they can cut down on food quality and camouflage it by increasing the volume. 

And the result will be a proliferation of bad restaurants with bad food blasting bad music.

Give me that iPod.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2010 11:20 pm

    I’m no expert, and this is just a guess, and I don’t mean to disparage Heston Blumenthal, but I think that if you have to play sound effects and serve your seafood on top of something that looks like beach, then the seafood probably isn’t as good as what you’d get at Captain D’s.

    That’s just a guess.

  2. October 20, 2010 11:51 pm

    Wow…”17-course meal”…really? I prefer my shellfish juices inside the seafood, thanks! I love watching the Food Network, but clearly, this “chef” has too much time on his hands!

    As for music while I’m eating, give me something soothing played at a volume which allows for conversation, and I’m good…say, a solo artist singing and playing an acoustic guitar. I think if the music is awful, you’re going to be too pissed off to enjoy the taste of your food…

    Wendy

    • October 21, 2010 6:48 am

      17 courses. Man, that’s a lot of food. “Would you care for a mint? They’re wafer thin….”

  3. October 21, 2010 3:09 am

    Does he think the same idea would work for, say, lamb?

  4. October 21, 2010 9:01 am

    Haven’t any of you guys seen Heston’s television show? He’s quite the entertainer and he does fantastic recreations of medieval food with a modern day science twist. I would KILL for a meal at his restaurant. KILL I say!

  5. October 21, 2010 12:28 pm

    Regarding the fly in the urinal: I’d aim for it, so that must be an idea worth pursuing.

    Re the sound-food hypothesis: It seems plausible (just as a natural-light hypothesis would): Eating and digestion would, for virtually all of our evolutionary past, have been activities we did only when we were not in danger. How would we (meaning our limbic system, endocrine glands etc) “know” we’re not in danger? Certain sounds — birds chirping, for instance. Other sounds (monkeys warning each other of a predator, say) might have alarmed us, immediately triggering the limbic system to tell the parasympathetic nervous system to shut down in order to send all energy to the sympathetic nervous system which now had to keep us alive. Ergo: The mammoth Schnitzel was suddenly less tasty.

    (Are you going to start paying me for my analysis here?) 😉

    • October 21, 2010 1:22 pm

      Interesting observations–someone told me that sound had the most impact on taste of all of the other senses. But a big question is whether taste was that big a deal in those days–one mammoth schnitzel probably tasted like all the others.

      As far as payment, how about a buck for every fly you kill? 🙂 🙂

  6. October 21, 2010 12:29 pm

    Regarding the fly in the urinal: I’d aim for it, so that must be an idea worth pursuing.

    Re the sound-food hypothesis: It seems plausible (just as a natural-light hypothesis would):

    Eating and digestion would, for virtually all of our evolutionary past, have been activities we did only when we were not in danger.

    How would we (meaning our limbic system, endocrine glands etc) “know” that we were not in danger?

    Certain sounds — birds chirping, for instance. Other sounds (monkeys warning each other of a predator, say) might have alarmed us, immediately triggering the limbic system to tell the parasympathetic nervous system to shut down in order to send all energy to the sympathetic nervous system which now had to keep us alive.

    Ergo: The mammoth Schnitzel was suddenly less tasty.

    (Are you going to start paying me for my analysis here?) 😉

    • October 21, 2010 12:58 pm

      I’m with Andreas: I can’t get past the fly in the urinals! What are you guys really like? I’m so glad to be shielded from the inner workings of the male restroom.

      Now, on to that 17-course meal: I don’t care what kind of music they play, I want to try this chef’s dinner!

  7. Vodka and Ground Beef permalink
    October 21, 2010 3:59 pm

    This is a good study. I’m going to make it part of my new diet. I will only eat my dinner to the sound of a whirring fan. That way I’ll associate food with blandness and I won’t be hungry. Or I’ll associate fans with food and eat more in wind storms. Now I’m not sure.

  8. October 21, 2010 7:49 pm

    All I can see coming is a plethora of dreadful cross promotion marketing between chain restaurants and ‘struggling artists,’ by which I mean total sell outs.

    I do enjoy soft, classical with my food though.

  9. October 22, 2010 6:04 am

    I believe the phenomenon addressed is called synesthesia.

    I also believe that the problem is airline food isn’t that we can’t taste it but that we can.

    • October 22, 2010 6:04 am

      with

    • October 22, 2010 6:06 am

      oops … with

      • October 22, 2010 7:09 pm

        Oh, I thought the first with hadn’t gone through. Now there are two corrections.

        To prevent precisely this, I just found and installed the coolest plugin on my blog. It gives a commentator a few minutes (the default is five minutes, but it can be set to any number) to make corrections to a posted comment.

        This plugin should be mandatory for all blogs.

  10. Gail permalink
    October 22, 2010 8:32 am

    Tom, if you can get your hands on a dvd from the library featuring Heston Blumenthal I know you will be pleasantly surprised. Some of his food (in my opinion) looked gross, but he does use modern technology to re-create his mediaval feasts. Wonderful showmanship and all his gueste seemed to really approve. I loved watching his shows. By the way he is English. G.

  11. Gail permalink
    October 22, 2010 8:33 am

    Sorry Tom, have just noticed some typo errors – fingers working faster than the brain. g.

  12. October 26, 2010 4:56 pm

    Note to airlines- the noise would make the airline food tasteless. What gives it the lousy taste?

  13. November 12, 2010 8:47 pm

    Only one place I frequent, maybe notthe right word, has loud music. The “Boneyard”. But the food is good and they have the largest T>V.’s Great fr wattching sports.
    Len Skuta

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