Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

Just when you thought there was no more that could possibly be said on eating, Oxford professor James Spence publishes Gastrophysics, The New Science of Eating.

Now you might be thinking, “More science on eating? Another fad diet to try?” But, that’s not at all what Spence’s book is about. In it, Spence answers questions like: Why could green ketchup never really work? or Why do we tend to consume 35 percent more food when we eat with another person? The answer, he says, is gastrophysics — which is responsible for the eating patterns and behaviors we regularly practice (and often ones we don’t even notice we ascribe to)!

He defines gastrophysics as a “combination of gastronomy and psychophysics — gastronomy being the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to humans as they eat, and psychophysics being the branch of psychology that deals with the relations between physical stimuli and mental phenomena.”

While our overall enjoyment of food is undoubtedly shaped by sensory experiences, Spence says the enjoyment of mealtime starts in the mind, not the mouth.

He explains that our dining experiences are based on a pattern of collective, value-based perceptions, and that our values and beliefs around food largely shape this response (which can include quality, quantity, color, smell, and presentation of food). It also includes our preconceived notions on the value and cost of food, as well as the acoustics of a room which can influence our gastro-physical expectations of a meal — something Spence describes as “sonic seasoning.”

Putting this theory to the test, Spence worked with a chocolatier in Belgium playing “creamy” music to produce a creamier tasting chocolate. Following several experiments, he found that taste can be altered approximately 15 percent saltier, sweeter, more bitter and so on after diners are subjected to particular sounds.

So, what about how we perceive the connections between food and wellness? Spence asks his reader to take notice of the surroundings while eating. Gauge the temperature, lighting, and noise; pay attention to what causes the senses to perk up. While considering these familiarities Spence includes a few tips for increasing our gastro-physical, health-sense awarenesses:

  1. Slow motion seems to increase our perceptions of health. (Example: if we’re shown an advertisement of a meal in slower motion we perceive it to be healthier.)

  2. Neurolinguistics makes a difference to our perceptions, and this is no different when it comes to gastronomy. (Example: would you like pasta salad for lunch or pasta in your salad? Turns out most of us will opt for pasta in our salad because it sounds healthier.)

  3. Imagining consumption of foods decreases the actual amount we consume.

Some high-profile, fine-dining restaurant groups have harnessed the science of gastrophysics to create unforgettable dining experiences for their patrons. Think of Chicago’s famous restaurant, Alinea where molecular gastronomy with smoke-emitting meals and edible balloons dominate a provocative gastrophysical experience, or at Denmark’s world-renowned, Noma, where the food on your plate is akin to eating along the forest floor.

Food marketers and restaurateurs will love Spence’s book, which is a solid read for marketers wanting to create a meaningful, health-oriented, sensory experience in their plans.

Have you created any new healthy habits in your own lifestyle through the science of gastrophysics? Has your restaurant or cafe benefitted from Spence’s science on eating? Share your gastrophysical experiences in the comments below.

Christine Dionese, co-founder of flavor ID is an integrative health and food therapy specialist, as well as a wellness, lifestyle, and food journalist. She has dedicated her career to helping others understand the science of happiness and its powerful effects on every day human health by harnessing the power of the epigenetic landscape. Christine lives, works, and plays in Southern California with her daughter and husband.

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