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Book review: Gastrophysics (Charles Spence)

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating is a recently published book by British experimental psychologist Charles Spence. I had heard about his work in a few food podcasts I listen to, particularly his experiments with “sonic seasoning” – the effect that sound has on taste and texture perception.

The introduction was written by British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, with whom Spence has collaborated for a number of years. This fact certainly gives the author more credibility than the Ig Nobel Prize he won in 2008 for his sonic seasoning research on potato chips.

What is gastrophysics?

As described by the author in chapter one, gastrophysics is where gastronomy meets psychophysics (i.e. the scientific study of perception). As we know, we perceive things through our senses, and this is how the book starts.

The book

Chapters 1-5 cover the senses: taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. The author explains how our perception of food comes from multiple sensory cues, not just flavour. Things that affect our willingness to eat a particular food and our perception of it include colour, a food’s name, genetic predisposition to taste certain substances, scents, shapes, size of the serving vessel, sound of packaging, texture and weight of the cutlery, etc.

The rest of the book builds on how those sensory cues are affected or applied to particular situations. ‘The atmospheric meal’ explains how ambience affects our dining behaviour and experience. ‘Social dining’ explores the current trend of eating alone vs. with others, and how that can modify what and how much we eat. ‘Airline food’ explains why it is (or it seems to be) so bad and what can be done to make it less bad. ‘The meal remembered’ reminds us that experiences are more memorable than tastes.

‘The personalised meal’ is all about our preference for personalisation (the simplest example being seasoning our food on the table) and how this can be used by businesses to target consumers. ‘The experiential meal’ narrates different approaches of delivering multisensory experiences in fine dining establishments, including theatrical serving, storytelling, music, magic, opera, etc. ‘Digital dining’ questions the benefits of digital menus, digital plating (i.e. plating on tablets), 3D food printing, etc. ‘Back to the futurists’ contrasts the 1930s Italian futurists movement with today’s dining scape.

Book wrap-up

Even though the bulk of the book can be viewed as a marketing tool for restaurateurs, the author also gives recommendations that can be used in ordinary life, particularly if one is interested in eating healthier. Thus, Spence ends the book with the following recommendations for eating healthy, applying some of the lessons learned from research:

  1. Eat less
  2. Hide junk food
  3. For middle-aged and older adults: drink lots of water before meals to fill you up
  4. Eat in front of a mirror to decrease consumption of junk food, eat slowly and mindfully
  5. The more food sensations (i.e. the least processed the food), the better
  6. Eat from small plates
  7. Eat from heavy bowls without rims, held in your hands (to trick you into thinking there is more food)
  8. Use red plates to trigger avoidance
  9. Eat using chopsticks or with your non-dominant hand or using small cutlery to make it more difficult to get food in your mouth

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