GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Food - why we eat what we eat and why our food is sometimes so much more than what we put on our plates.
CHARLES SPENCE: We all think we taste food in our mouths. And yet, that's an illusion in the sense that most of what you're tasting - the fruity, the floral, the meaty, the herbal, the burnt and the smoky - are actually being decoded by our nostrils. But our brain is doing this wonderful job of ventriloquizing the information I get from my nose and making me believe as if it's coming from my mouth.
RAZ: This is Charles Spence.
SPENCE: Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University.
RAZ: What is the Crossmodal Research Laboratory?
SPENCE: It's a lab here in the psychology department where we look at how the senses interact.
RAZ: And, yes, our mouth and nose interact when we eat but so do our mouth and our ears.
SPENCE: We did experiments where we were feeding people potato chips, and each time they bit into a potato chip, we would change the sound that they heard sometimes making their own crunching sounds louder, sometimes quieter, sometimes boosting just certain frequency. And we're able to show that as soon as you change the sound, it changed the crispiness, the crunchiness, the freshness and these other attributes there.
RAZ: Charles says how our food sounds even looks can change how it tastes.
SPENCE: One might color a white wine artificially red with an odorless, tasteless food dye. And if done appropriately, you'll find the experts - the wine makers - will get fooled into smelling and even tasting what they think is a red wine. All the aromas, you know, of the tobacco and the dark chocolate and the stone fruits and so on, even though what they're actually tasting is the white.
RAZ: All of this, Charles says, feeds into a larger idea that how we experience our food is more than just about the ingredients. Here's Charles Spence on the TED stage.
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SPENCE: I'm here this morning to tell you about the perfect meal. We're all convinced we can taste the food. We can enjoy the flavors and aromas of the wine in the glass. But in fact a lot of what's going on is that it's created by the atmosphere in which we eat and drink. But the question is how to study it, how to measure it and the tendency amongst the scientists like the neurogastronists is to stick people like you or I in a brain scanner, give them something to eat, something to drink and see which parts of the brain light up.
This is kind of your brain on flavor or neurogastronomy. But I think there's one problem here which is that, in fact, if you imagine yourself in one of these brain scanners kind of lying on your back with your head clamped still with a tube in your mouth that periodically squirts in some drink, you can't swallow it because if you swallow it, your head will kind of jolt and that will spoil the brain scan alignment. So it tells you something useful, but it doesn't tell you about the perfect meal because no one has had that perfect meal in one of those situations.
RAZ: What exactly defines a perfect meal?
SPENCE: (Laughter) So it's probably different for each and every one of us. It may come in with something very, very simple. It can be fish and chips by the sea side or it could be, you know, on your summer holidays by the beach somewhere. These often will stick in people's minds as best meals. But what I guess has to be there is the mood you're in and the people you're with. So it's got the social aspects of dining.
No one has ever had that perfect meal when they're fighting with their partner, say. Part of the thing about these kind of holiday meals that seem to stick with us and resonate and you can never quite capture when you get back home is that - is your mood, your body relaxed, you're on holiday, you're less stressed, you're probably with your family, and all these things come together to help enhance the experience or make it something sort of truly memorable.
RAZ: You think about, like - how many times have you met a friend who's just come back from a holiday and they, say, oh, you've got to try this amazing red wine that I tried in Greece. And then you try it and you were sort of thinking...
SPENCE: So that phenomenon has a name. I think we've all got our own versions of it.
SPENCE: We call it the Provencal Rose paradox. It's used to describe Northern Europeans, particularly, who go for their holidays to the Mediterranean. And they're sitting somewhere on the side of the sea sipping that rose wine probably looking into their lover's eyes. The sun's out. You can hear the sounds of the sea, the smells of the salty air. It's all there. And that tastes like the best glass of wine you've ever had...
SPENCE: ...So great that you want to buy a bottle or a case and bring it back to share with your friends, show what good taste you have and you bring it back. And then you're disappointed.
RAZ: And your friends are like this is really cheap rose.
SPENCE: Yeah. And you say what happened? Is it something about when the bottles were in the airplane getting a cold and that, you know, spoiled the wine? It's not about that at all. We never eat nor drink nowhere. We're always somewhere in a certain environment, in a certain state of mind.
And our mental state and the environment both together kind of impacts what we think we're tasting and how much we enjoy it. And we sort of in a way sort of misattribute, I suppose, some of the pleasure of the situation and put some of that pleasure into what we think about the food.
RAZ: In fact, says Charles, these ideas about how we experience food have actually convinced some chefs to try out certain methods of flavor enhancement. And these are methods that have nothing to do with the ingredients.
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SPENCE: If you're in a good mood, food taste good. If you're in a bad mood, it never tastes good. It's this illusion about flavor. We think we're tasting the wine in the glass, but our brain cares about everything else. The sound of the seagull, the smell of the salty sea air, the warmth of the sun on our backs - all of that is playing into the experience and top chefs are capturing that insight in the dishes they serve.
SPENCE: So Denis(sp?) - a two-Michelin-star restaurant in Vevey in Switzerland - when you get to his two-Michelin-star restaurant, white tablecloths - there's no cutlery on the table. There's no glasses. There are no plates, no nothing. There's just a plastic cow, and people wait - say, well, he told us to be here at 7 o'clock. And we're here. And everyone's here in the restaurant now. I can see all the tables are full. Nothing will happen until somebody picks up, curiously, that plastic cow. And when they pick get up, it'll go (imitating mooing). It's a little cheap, 1-euro cow. And he makes a mooing sound.
And as soon as some - the first table does it, they'll be laughing. And then you can guarantee within a minute, you'll have a whole restaurant full of mooing cows, laughing diners - and that is the moment when the first dish comes out because Denis has successfully, with nothing more than 1 euro a table, enhanced the mood. And he knows that will improve even the taste of a two-Michelin-star restaurant.
RAZ: Wow. So, like, from a neurological perspective, do we fully understand what's happening, Like, why that's the case?
SPENCE: (Laughter) No. So we don't know that it does happen, but it is the case. It's all a kind of classic example of just how important the environment is to what we taste. I work with a young chef called Jozef Youssef here in London. And he's been sending out questionnaires several weeks after people have been to his restaurant to say, what do you remember?
SPENCE: And he'll say, what flavor was the soup? And people are convinced they can remember. But in fact, when you check what was actually on the menu, they're kind of constructing something. They remember the experience, what they felt about it. And their brain kind of fills in the rest about the details of what they think they thought they were eating.
RAZ: Are most chefs that you talked to - are they on board with your ideas? Do they think - yeah, it is about the experiences -he's right. Or do they say - no, this is totally absurd. It's all about the food and the taste of the food.
SPENCE: Of course there are still some chefs who say - no, no. It is just what I was taught in culinary school. It is just the saucing, the preparation but nothing else. But you sort of say OK. So in your restaurant, do you serve the food with, you know, plastic cutlery? No, no. It's silver, isn't it? And where is your restaurant exactly? Oh, it's in a country manor house looking out at nature. So they're saying all these things on the one hand, but, clearly, you can never sort of serve food just by itself. It's always served on something, in a certain environment. And those kind of contextual factors are always there. They cannot be avoided.
So certainly, I think there are a growing number of the younger chefs who are now popping up, starting up their own venues - who are really, I think, for the first time in history saying, we don't need to just know about the ingredients and cooking preparation techniques. We really need to know about the mind of those that we're serving.
RAZ: Charles Spence wrote about his research on how we experience food in his latest book. It's called "The Perfect Meal." You can see his entire talk at ted.npr.org.
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