Following on from our blog about Ferran Adria’s El Bulli food lab last week,when we raised the question of modern day food becoming less a sensory pleasure and more a food science, it was interesting to see an article in The Guardian yesterday, which takes that point on a little further. According to the article, molecular gastronomy has become stale, and a new scientific approach is now taking place. Known as ‘Gastrophysics’. Yes, it even has a name. Reading on a little more, we discover in this piece that the term comes from Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. Our own research tells us Professor Spence is a pioneer of studies into better understanding of the human mind, and how the brain translates information from the senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Then in turn, how this understanding may help to create foods which appeal on a deep level to all the human senses. Gastrophysics is a science of a very unique kind.
Professor Spence’s research shows that more conscious understanding of the senses has a direct link to design of everyday items – from the mobile phone to food. His current project on sensory stimulating foods involves working with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in Bray, UK. In restaurant terms, Head Chef Blumenthal is famous for turning the concept of visual appeal and taste on it’s head, often confusing his diners yet pleasing them in a way they don’t truly understand. How can we understand why we are pleased with what we are eating, when these food scientist experts now have an in to our very psyche and can play games with our minds in this way?
There’s also another side to Gastrophysics. According to the Guardian, it incorporates many aspects. Examples given include using heavier cutlery leading to better food enjoyment and classial music encouraging diners to opt for the more expensive dishes on the menu. These are subliminal messages we may not even notice when we go into a restaurant – but they have the desired effect and we go back for more. Clever restaurant owners know this and may even employ consultants to maximise on these design aspects. Quite a cunning plan!
Another Professor mentioned in the Guardian in the Gastrophysics arena is Professor Brian Wansink – the John Dyson Professor of Consumer Behaviour at Cornell University and Director of Cornell Food and Brand lab . His expertise includes research into behaviours around grocery shopping, eating, food pyschology, food marketing,and consumer behaviour. Quite the heavy hitter. Wansink’s work has appeared in many of the leading medical and nutritional publications. He is also the author of Mindless Eating and has pioneered Slim by Design, a four week course for iPhone,which includes daily lessons from Wansink himself and a live coach to make sure you don’t fall by the wayside in improving your eating behaviour patterns. The course appeals to dieters, focussing on changing the environment to help people eat better to get healthier and/or lose weight. This involves not just food itself, but food related items like plate colours: red makes you eat less – and behaviours: eating alone equals eating less, according to Wansink. On the Slim by Design website, Wansink says that his research at Cornell has shown that 75% dieters give up in the first month, and 95% of dieters end up regaining the weight. All this can be changed, he says, by changing behaviour patterns around food. In this commercial enterprise Wansink uses his research expertise to invent new ways of eating for those who read his books and follow his course.
All this brings us back to wondering what the art of real food is all about. Yes it is easy to see how poor behaviour patterns can set in and make us fail as healthy and consciencious eaters, and how the experts having a better understanding of the senses could give us a far greater enjoyment of food when we dine out – even if we don’t know how it happens. But it also makes us question the other ways now being used to trick our minds when it comes to food and how we percieve it. Particularly in the commercial ready made and fast food world. Good reason, we think, for keeping our food choices fresh, seasonal, local and traceable.