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June 2017

Gastrophysics. The new science of eating

Reviewed by Damien Blackwell

Book review

Spence C., Penguin, 2017, paperback, ISBN 9780241270097, 464 pp. $32.99

From the get go I must confess Gastrophysics – the new science of eating is chemistry light. In fact, if you discount a mention of androstenone, the Maillard reaction and the relationship between pressure and the number of volatile aromatic molecules in the air, then you may conclude the chemistry content of this fascinating book is rather closer to zero. But what it lacks in chemistry, it more than makes up with gastronomy and psychophysics, or more succinctly put, ‘gastrophysics’. Author and experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence has coined the term ‘gastrophysics’ to describe a new approach in food science, which draws on disciplines from psychology, neurobiology and sensory sciences to marketing, behavioural economics and design. Gastrophysics looks to better understand how we perceive eating and to design and deliver healthier, happier dining experiences.

Spence heads up the rather curiously named Crossmodal Research Laboratory (CRL) at Oxford University. As you might expect, social scientists dominate his laboratory. However, my online investigations suggest of the half dozen or so staff, at least two hold science degrees, possibly even chemistry! The laboratory’s online manifesto is studying ‘the integration of information across the various different sensory modalities (hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell) using a variety of paradigms and techniques’, especially as this relates to our perception of food and drink.

In the book’s early chapters, Spence explains and examines how the five senses function and together contribute to the total dining ‘experience’. Dining is a multi-sensorial experience, a dynamic interplay between and involving taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing. The visual, aural and olfactory cues we detect before actual physical contact with food, plus the touch itself, have a significant bearing on our overall expectations of taste. Cooks, chefs, food and beverage manufacturers and marketers alike increasingly manipulate these signals (e.g. ‘mood’ music, lighting, aromas and scents) to shape and set our expectations about flavour, taste and the total dining experience. Spence is also interested here to consider how the mode or medium of food delivery into the body, be it a takeaway cup, beer glass, plate or piece of cutlery, might be redesigned or reconfigured to achieve a more satisfying, and healthier, dining experience.

Yes, it’s so much more than just the cuisine. Where (e.g. home, workplace, restaurant) and how (e.g. in silence, with a surprise) a meal is served, what you have been told about it (e.g. its origins, preparation) prior to dining, with whom you are dining, the nature of the venue (e.g. the design, shape, building materials and orientation or presentation of the tableware and furnishings), among a host of others. Subtle or not so subtle changes to any one of the dining factors or variables can cause or lead to quite dramatic changes to how we interpret and perceive the dining experience. For example, altering the shape, colour or weight of crockery can have quite a profound effect on aspects such as energy intake, how highly we rate a meal and food memories. Another example familiar to most of us concerns how food is plated, or simply the orientation of the plate. Studies show we are prepared to pay substantially more for the same meal presented more ‘pleasingly’ on the plate, or simply when the plate is rotated a few degrees!

Over the ‘course’ of the book’s middle to latter chapters Spence ‘serves’ (apologies) as our international culinary guide. Figuratively jetting from country to country, restaurant to restaurant, he tucks into, digests and … (again, apologies) regurgitates the results of gastrophysics research for us to ponder and, in many cases, apply in our everyday lives.

Speaking of jetting, Spence actually devotes an entire chapter to airline food, which for a time was quite a focal point of air travel. The advent of economy class not only put an end to fine food, but tarnished the reputations of many ‘brand name’ chefs contracted in to restore airline dining to … greater heights. Even dishes by the best chefs will not rate as highly in the air as on the ground due to significant differences between pressure, humidity and sound. The gastrophysics research suggests airlines would do better to invest, for example, in noise-cancelling headphones and genuine glass wineglasses to enhance passengers’ dining experience rather than costly chefs!

Squeezed in between in-flight dining and the personalised dinner chapters is ‘the meal remembered’. Here Spence explains how food memories are developed, why the details of a meal (particularly the name of a dish and how it tasted) fade so rapidly and how to create ‘stickier’, more readily recalled food memories by exploiting ‘tricks of the mind’, portion size, sequencing, and other factors. Spence is constantly exploring ways to enhance the dining experience (like remembering it!) for the masses, especially the disadvantaged. For example, he helped develop an ‘aroma-based’ intervention, essentially a plug-in device to emit food scents around mealtimes, to help remind people with early stage dementia to eat.

Spence literally samples from the exciting, often esoteric, menu of global gastrophysics (and gastronomical) study and research. For a relatively modest-sized text, it is peppered with interesting and broad references, about 400 in all. And even the references come with ‘sides’, Spence’s additional commentary about the chosen research. Studies by Spence’s own CRL feature prominently of course, but he also includes and critiques research from a diverse and comprehensive gastrophysics field. Researchers and contributors include fellow psychologists, imaginative chefs and cooks, medical and allied health practitioners, food and beverage manufacturers, artists, musicians and, yes, even chemists!

The personalised dinner chapter is at times rather creepy. Restaurateurs and the like are ‘data mining’ and Googling the tastes, interests, proclivities and peculiarities of potential diners in order to ‘personalise’ their dining experience. According to the research, this more ‘attentive’ and tailored approach is associated with higher levels of dining satisfaction. While some of you may be impressed by your host’s uncanny inside knowledge, I for one am more perturbed by this approach. Admittedly, online intelligence gathering to inform your ultimate dining experience works best perhaps for those with online profile presence, namely those in the public eye or others who are simply heavily immersed in social media. So by this measure I would be spared the feelings of intrusion and perhaps being stalked. According to Spence, however, this personalised approach is finding traction.

Spence being pals with chefs of global repute, his book also serves as a rather handy guide to international fine (and at times slightly bizarre) dining. More importantly though, the associations afford Spence the opportunity to design and conduct a variety of fascinating gastrophysics experiments. As I’ve highlighted, he’s genuinely interested in translating the results of his ‘high end’ gastrophysics research into practical measures at the level of the home cook, or indeed the home mixologist. So in each chapter he provides a variety of practical suggestions, informed by scientific research, that we can all try at home (or when dining out) to enrich and optimise our perception of eating. Importantly, Spence’s gastrophysics research is also focused on people with particular dining challenges, such as the elderly, who often exhibit suppressed appetite and therefore struggle to feel satiated. By applying the results of gastrophysics study, interest in dining can be significantly increased, leading to a more memorable meal and healthy weight gain.

Fittingly, Spence concludes the book with a chapter highlighting the culinary ‘experiments’ of the Italian Futurists, the forerunners of modernist dining. Spence is the Futurist’s number one fan. He credits the origins of modernist cuisine to Futurist founder Filipo Tomaso Marinetti and his colleagues, who in the 1930s were, among others, deliberating confusing diners by miscolouring foods, playing ambient soundscapes during meals and inviting them to feel different textured materials while eating. Of course, the Futurists didn’t have the scientific knowledge, tools or indeed the intent to optimise the multisensory dining experience. It was more about moving people out of their comfort zone. Spence includes part of the Futurist’s manifesto, concerning the ‘perfect meal’, in this chapter and draws parallels with many of the practices of contemporary chefs. He also provides his own set of tips to stage your own ‘Futurist dinner party’. If enacted, a night sure to be remembered!Spence’s style is engaging, casual and congenial, his analyses and discussion of the gastrophysics research leavened with good humour. While this approach is a fun and entertaining way to deliver information, it’s also responsible I think for the book’s most obvious fault, namely a lack of brevity.* Some tighter editing, particularly in the second half of the book, would prove beneficial. Figures, while usually illustrating a very interesting gastronomic curiosity or other, are used rather too sparingly. Ultimately, these are relatively minor quibbles in an otherwise fascinating book. If you can get the ‘staging’ (to optimise your reading experience) right, and forgive Gastrophysics its ‘name dropping’ and scant chemistry content, then I warrant its reading will help you realise more rewarding, memorable and healthier dining experiences.

*A crime I fear I am now guilty of given the extended nature of this review.

Damien Blackwell MRACI CChem

Austrian Airlines/cc-by-sa-2.0

A deluxe meal in Austrian Airlines’ economy class (2013), available for an extra prepaid fee.

Spence’s style is engaging, casual and congenial, his analyses and discussion of the gastrophysics research leavened with good humour.

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