LIANE HANSEN, host:
Now to the subject of food, specifically the science and sociology of what we put in our mouths, as well as where and how we eat. The people who gave the world pea soup have come up with a unique laboratory where diners' tastes, habits and moods are closely monitored while they chow down.
Frank Browning went to the Netherlands to check out this unusual restaurant.
FRANK BROWNING: For starters, it's called the Restaurant of the Future. Looks like any trendy, healthy food cafeteria. Soft lights, floor to ceiling windows, salad buffets, an enormous soup pot. Then you glance up at the ceiling and see some small maroon domes.
Mr. PABLO KATZAKIS(ph) (Graduate Student, Wageningen University): At the beginning you realize that there are some cameras watching you, but I'm eating here for, let's say, almost a year now. I just forgot about it.
BROWNING: Pablo Katzakis is a Greek graduate student in Wageningen University, which is Holland's preeminent agriculture and life sciences school. To eat here you have to sign a research waiver. Rene Koster is co-founder and manager of the restaurant.
Mr. RENE KOSTER (Co-Founder and Manager, Restaurant of the Future): On one hand it's a normal restaurant run by professionals, where people come and have an enjoyable meal. And it could be research ongoing, but you don't feel it, you don't smell it, you don't taste it.
BROWNING: A black rubber scale at one of the cash registers unobtrusively weighs diners and all of their choices are recorded. Afterwards, the staff weigh how much of each food is thrown away to find out how much people are actually eating. They also monitor how light, color, sound, presentation and eating alone or eating in groups affects diners.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
BROWNING: A few steps down the hall through thick gray doors is one of two monitoring centers dominated by computer screens that are fed by those maroon video eyes inside the restaurant.
Mr. KOSTER: This is what we call Big Brother Room One. Only the scientists are allowed to come in.
BROWNING: Among other things, their research shows that women take five times as long as men to choose their meals. And it turns out, everyone eats lighter on a Monday than on a Friday. Perhaps not too surprising, men and women also choose differently depending upon who else is at their table.
Mr. KOSTER: If women eat with other women, they tend to indulge more than if men were present. Then women tend to take out more, let's say, the healthy foods. And that's all more, let's say, subconsciously, a way of expressing yourself to others.
BROWNING: Men turn into cowboys when they're together, competing to see who can swallow the most. Restaurants have always been links both to science and the need to be seen, says Indiana University historian Rebecca Spang, who wrote about the birth of restaurants in 18th century France.
Professor REBECCA SPANG (Historian, Indiana University): The first restaurants emerge in the context of not 21st century food science, but 18th century science of sensibility. And what a restaurant is is a place that one goes not to be nourished, because that's vulgar, but to be restored. You go out to be restored, and in doing so, you show everybody else who's there how exquisitely well-tuned your nerves are. You're not somebody who could just eat a big slab of beef. Instead you have to have the particular delicacies that will be restorative.
BROWNING: Restaurant of the Future itself may resemble most any pleasant restorative eatery, but most of the hard research takes place in near clinical tasting labs, where outsiders are never invited. In this video touting the center's work, subjects are separated in test booths and asked to evaluate a series of sushi rolls.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified Woman: Please look at them. Which one do you like most? Also, why do you like it most - just the looks of it? And after that, taste the sushis and, also, think for yourself, what do you like? What don't you like?
BROWNING: In another lab, participants sit on what looks like a large salon chair. They're fitted with tubes to the mouth and the nose. A recent project targeted low-fat milk, using a gustometer for taste and an olfactometer for aroma. Rene de Wijk directed the project. He's a psychologist.
Dr. RENE DE WIJK (Psychologist): This gustometer device injected the low-fat milk into the mouth. On top of that, we presented a cream aroma in the nose.
BROWNING: Guess what? Not only did the subjects say that the low-fat milk tasted like whole milk, but they even said it had the texture of whole milk. That test was undertaken for the dairy industry and has already changed how milk and low-fat dairy products are produced well beyond Holland. Much of the work at the Restaurant of the Future is on contract to private industry.
Indeed, Wageningen University's key partner and sponsor is Sodexho, the world's second-largest food preparation company. And that distresses, at least somewhat, Rebecca Spang.
Prof. SPANG: This is the kind of neuro-economic consumer psychology research that drives all of us, who are, shall I say, old-fashioned humanists, really, a bit mad. And - but it costs more.
BROWNING: Spang calls it capitalism run wild. But the restaurant's researchers point out that their work also contributes to more effective strategies for fighting obesity and making healthier low-calorie food taste better.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning.