The crunch of a chip, the snap of a carrot, or the fizz of a freshly opened beverage may greatly influence just how good we think those foods taste, according to new flavor research.
Flavor perception is multi-sensory. “The flavor of food is reduced to a mere whisper when its scent is lost,” chef Molly Birnbaum once said. In a new report published in the journal Flavour, researcher Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University reviews a wide variety of research related to sound and flavor perception, and comes to the conclusion that what a food sounds like is incredibly important to the experience of eating it. That sound, he says, is the “forgotten flavor sense.”
“Our brains are all the time trying to pick up correlations in the environment,” says Spence. According to his research, people use sounds to assess how tasty food is, even if they don’t realize it. In one of the studies he highlights, consumers used the word “crisp” more than any other descriptor when they were asked to evaluate 79 foods. Another study completed in 2007 by University of Leeds researchers to determine just how important bacon crispiness is to a BLT, the lead researcher concluded: “We often think it’s the taste and smell of bacon that consumers find most attractive. But our research proves that texture and the crunching sound is just—if not more—important.”
Science has also shown that changing the sounds a food makes can influence a person’s perception of it. In his own prior research, Spence showed that people give carbonated beverages higher ratings when the sound of the bubbles popping becomes louder and more frequent.
But why is the way food sounds important to us? For one, Spence says it could be that sound is an indicator for texture and therefore quality. Texture can reveal how fresh food is. If an apple cracks crisply when it’s bitten into, instead of yielding without a snap, you know that’s a good sign.
Even soft foods, like bread, bananas or mousse can make subtle sounds when they’re bitten, sliced or plunged into with a spoon, and Spence says he believes the commercialization of sounds in the food industry may soon be growing in a big way.
“It’s going to start out with modernist chefs,” Spence predicts. Food modifications could also be used to help make food more pleasurable for the elderly whose overall senses may be decreasing, he adds.
Outside sound can also influence perception, and it doesn’t require much effort. “If I’m having Italian food and I’m hearing music of that region, it may make me perceive the food as more authentic,” he says. Even the ice cream company Häagen-Dazs launched an app where customers can scan their ice cream carton and listen to a violin concerto timed to allow the ice cream to soften.
Still, Spence says he largely feels like sound isn’t being considered in the food industry as often as it could be. A 2003 survey of 14o food scientists showed they rated sound as the least important attribute contributing to flavor. But as research continues to emerge and the industry continues to experiment, we may be listening to our food more often.