Meet the Man Food Giants Hire to Trick Your Tastebuds

How an experiment with Pringles turned food marketing on its ear.

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Eating is a multi-sensory experience. Sure, our tongue sends us the most information about what we put in our mouths, but our eyes, our nose, our skin, and even our ears are enlisted to collaborate in sometimes surprising ways. Our brains use audio cues, texture, color, and shape to communicate information about what we’re eating.

But, one scientist wondered, what if those stimuli could be adjusted to provide misinformation?

Such is the subject of the research conducted by Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University who was recently highlighted in a fascinating piece in The New Yorker.

Spence runs the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford, studying how the brain synchronizes information from all five human senses to produce our impression of reality. A significant part of his multisensory research is dedicated to food—specifically, to how it's marketed and packaged.

He first delved into the multisensory world of dining with a 2004 paper titled “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips.” The results were anything but stale.

It all started with Pringles

For his initial study, Spence asked subjects to sit in front of a microphone wired to a pair of headphones. The volunteers then sampled 200 Pringles potato chips, spitting each one out and assigning a rating of crisper or less crisp, fresh or less fresh. The sound of each crunch was piped through the headphones.

In theory, the sounds shouldn’t have mattered—all the chips were identical. But Spence adjusted the crunching sound for each chip through an amp and equalizer.

When the subjects were asked whether the chips were all the same or different, nearly all said the chips varied—that some of the cans were fresh while other chips were from cans that had been open a while. Pringles that made a louder, higher-pitched crunch—via the headphones—were thought to be fresher.

Since then, Spence has repeatedly documented how consumer perceptions of taste can be altered through color, shape, or sound alone. Among the examples The New Yorker cited:

  • Strawberry mousse tastes 10 percent sweeter in a white container
  • Coffee tastes almost twice as intense, but only two-thirds as sweet, when it's in a white mug
  • Adding 2.5oz to the weight of a plastic yogurt container makes it seem about 25 percent more filling
  • Bittersweet toffee tastes 10 percent more bitter if it's eaten while listening to low-pitched music.
  • A cookie seems harder and crunchier when served from a surface with a rough finish

Spence has worked with top chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, and these days he's studying ways to make bug-eating acceptable to westerners. As The Guardian put it, Spence is “quietly influencing what we eat and drink” on a global scale.

At Heston Blumenthal's restaurant The Fat Duck a dish called Sound of the Sea comes with an iPod in a conch shell, for diners to listen to crashing waves as they eat.

Who really benefits from this research?

Spence estimates that 75 percent of his sensory neuroscience work is funded by major food and beverage companies, much of which results in carefully revised packaging. The obvious aim is to improve the consumer experience and boost sales. But food companies are under increased government pressure to reduce salt and sugar in packaged foods, and increased enjoyment via other senses could help compensate for less flavorful products.

Considering how much control over the processed foods market they have already, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with food giants like Unilever (one of Spence’s major clients) artificially manipulating my sensory input. But maybe there’s a silver lining?

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Spence notes that older eaters, whose taste buds may have dulled with time, tend to salt food more heavily. His research also shows that the color blue can make food taste significantly saltier, so why not package soup cans in blue to offset the increased health risk of a salt-laden diet?

In fact, The Guardian reports Spence is already quietly helping famous brands reduce salt and sugar in packaged foods. Could misleading packaging actually contribute to the greater good?

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