We eat with our ears

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In 2010, the London-based creative agency Condiment Junkie worked with renowned chef Heston Blumenthal (interviewed here by “Good Food”) to create a Sound of the Sea soundtrack. The goal? To amp up the fresh, fishy qualities of a dish served at The Fat Duck that featured sashimi, three kinds of seaweed and tapioca fashioned into sand. It worked because Blumenthal knew that sound influences what we smell and taste. It’s what University of Oxford researcher Charles Spence calls “the forgotten flavor sense” in his study “Eating with our Ears.”

Our sensory experience of food can change by up to 60 percent depending on what we hear while eating and drinking. A sitar playing in an Indian restaurant, for example, will make our samosas and Vindaloo seem more authentic — while throbbing music in a club leads us to drink greater amounts of alcohol at a faster rate. Noisy environments, Cornell University researchers discovered when studying in-flight drink preferences on airplanes, disrupt our perceptions of sweetness, but they dramatically increase our awareness of umami (savory) tastes.

What we hear while we chew and slurp, or when we rip open a package or twist the neck of a bottle, builds our expectations and influences what we ultimately experience in our nose and mouth. Our sense of hearing is so sophisticated that 96 percent of people surveyed by Condiment Junkie could tell the difference between hot and cold water, just by the sound. Take a listen.

In the latest issue of the peer-reviewed journal Appetite, sound engineer and experimental psychologist Felipe Carvalho, along with Charles Spence and others, look at how sound influences not only taste but touch. This study — called “Smooth Operator” — is the first to show the kinds of impacts that sound can have on not only sweetness and bitterness, but the texture of chocolate.

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Researcher Felipe Carvalho and colleagues assessing the relationship between sound and flavor. (Photo courtesy of Felipe Carvalho) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“The starting point of this research comes from the fact that sensory information is processed by the brain all together,” Carvalho explains. “So we can actually use the information from one sense to influence the perception of the other.” While bitterness is related to lower frequency ranges, sweetness tends to be drawn out by higher-pitched sounds such as those made by a flute or a piano. “Creamy is fluid [with] a lot of reverberation,” he says, while “rough is very dissonant and very dry.”

And, of course, this aural impact extends beyond chocolate. “The first connection that we have with music is emotional,” Carvalho reminds us. “Choose music that you would find pleasant because this is the easy way to transfer pleasure to the tasting experience.”

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Sound also reveals how chocolate is processing. A tight snap reflects the ​quality of the temper, a process that alters the molecular structure of chocolate to improve mouthfeel and appearance. (Photo courtesy of Simran Sethi) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Top photo courtesy of Simran Sethi. Subscribe to her new podcast all about chocolate, The Slow Melt.

This project was made possible with support from KCRW’s Independent Producer’s Project.