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 plateware 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
The Bad Food Bible

Book review: The Bad Food Bible

I first heard about this book in a food-related podcast (can’t remember which one). The full name of the book – The Bad Food Bible: How and Why to Eat Sinfully – was totally unappealing to me but somehow the book showed in my Audible list of suggestions and I decided to give it a listen.

The book was written by paediatrician Aaron Carroll. I have some bias against doctors who think they know more about nutrition than everyone else, especially knowing that they don’t get much nutrition education in uni. However, I decided to chill out and just listen to what he had to say.

Turns out that Carroll is not a regular doctor. He does not rely on textbook information that is taken as gospel even though is based on outdated or unreliable research.

In this respect, the most valuable takeaway of The Bad Food Bible for the lay reader/listener is that not all studies are created equal. The author explains in an approachable way how to critically appraise a research depending on the study design (e.g. randomised controlled trial > observational study), the study subjects (e.g. humans > mice), etc. I think this is important information that everyone should be aware of because of the way research gets portrayed (and sometimes misrepresented) in the media.

For the bulk of the book, Carroll talks the foods/ingredients that are generally considered as poison. These foods tend to be highly controversial and polarising. One of the reasons the author gives is the fact that there is research published for and against many foods. He cites the article Is everything we eat associated with cancer? A systematic cookbook review, in which the authors selected 50 ingredients from a cookbook and found that 40 of them were associated with cancer risk. The problem is that associations went in both directions, i.e. increased or decreased risk and that evidence was weak or non-statistically significant for most of the studies.

The author also mentions other sources of noise in research, including researcher bias, the placebo/

Cooked by Michael Pollan

Book review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

I finally listened to Michael Pollan‘s latest book, Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation. Pollan, a contributor writer for The New York Times, is one of the thought leaders of the real food movement. His previous books, which include The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense Of Food and Food Rules, focus on the intersection of food, history, politics, society and health. I am a big fan of his writing, both in style and in content. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything he stands for, I think the gist of his message is nothing but positive.

Cooked is divided in the four elements: fire, water, air and earth, which are not only essential to life in general but also specifically to food transformation. Part of the author’s research for the book involved travelling to multiple locations in order to find one or more experts in a particular way of cooking (or preparing) food, in order to learn how to do it by himself from scratch. As Pollan notes, current society spends more time obsessing about food and less time cooking than ever before. His message in this book is that cooking is a way of reconnecting with our human nature, expressing generosity, building community, improving our health and eventually influencing the direction of food production and politics.

This book, as the previous ones, is beautifully written. I think it should come with a warning: “this book will make you hungry”. Let me elaborate. Fire describes what is possibly the earliest technology that allowed us to maximise the nutrients that we could extract from food. Pollan, being American, explored this element using the example of barbecue. I spent the whole section not only craving, but looking for online menus and planning my next visit to a local American barbecue restaurant.

In the water section, the author narrates how he enlisted one of his former students, who has worked as a professional cook, to teach him how to cook. The lessons involved many “pot” dishes, such as braises, which link to the main topic of the section. Braising liquids, such as stock, wine, milk and plain old water, are discussed in this section, as well as the superiority of pot dishes as a means to nourish many mouths with less cost and more flavour.

Air is mainly about bread, one of the foods which structure is defined by the air produced by bacterial fermentation. Pollan embarks in the adventure of making his own sourdough starter and baking his own bread with the help of a professional baker. There was a time when I baked a loaf of bread every week (mainly for my husband) and, even though I used commercial yeast instead of a starter, I do agree it is a very satisfying thing to do from scratch.

The final section, earth, expands on the topic of fermentation. It includes cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi, wine, mead, cheese and beer. As such, Pollan consulted with a few different experts, including a nun who makes artisanal cheeses and beer brewing experts. This section gave me cravings for cheese and beer, both of which were satisfied over the weekend :).

The book comes with four recipes, one for each transformation. These are involved recipes, don’t expect “ready in 15 minutes” weeknight dinner dishes. There is also a list of recommended books on cooking in general and also for each transformation.

Pollan makes clear that his prescription is not that everyone should be cooking all the time. Instead, he suggests we should aim to cook a few more times per week (and ideally eat with the rest of the family), and therefore eat out less and/or buy less ready-made meals. This is advice I can definitely get behind.