Gastrophysics and follies

Yes, turns out there is a science of eating, which is called gastrophysics, and a popular science introduction to the emerging field was published in an accessible book this year by Charles Spence (Professor [!] Charles Spence, as the front cover says), called, unsurprisingly, Gastrophysics—the new science of eating. The ‘follies’ I added to the blog post title refers to the non-science parts of the book, which is a polite term that makes it a nice alliteration in the pronunciation of the post’s title. The first part of this post is about the interesting content of the book; the second part about certain downsides.

The good and interesting chapters

Given that some people don’t even believe there’s a science to food (there is, a lot!), it is perhaps even a step beyond to contemplate there can be such thing as a science for the act of eating and drinking itself. Turns out—quite convincingly in the first couple of chapters of the book—that there’s more to eating than meets the eye. Or taste bud. Or touch. Or nose. Or ear. Yes, the ear is involved too: e.g., there’s a crispy or crunchy sound when eating, say, crisps or corn flakes, and it is perceived as an indicator of the freshness of the crisps/cornflakes. When it doesn’t crunch as well, the ratings are lower, for there’s the impression of staleness or limpness to it. The nose plays two parts: smelling the aroma before eating (olfactory) and when swallowing as volatile compounds are released in your throat that reach your nose from the back when breathing out (i.e., retronasal).

The first five chapters of the books are the best, covering taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch. They present easily readable interesting information that is based on published scientific experiments. Like that drinking with a straw ruins the smell-component of the liquid (and so does drinking from a bottle) cf drinking from a glass that sets the aromas free to combine the smell with the taste for a better overall evaluation of the drink. Or take the odd (?) thing that frozen strawberry dessert tastes sweeter from a white bowl than a black one, as is eating it from a round plate cf. from an angular plate. Turns out there’s some neuroscience to shapes (and labels) that may explain the latter. If you think touch and cutlery don’t matter: it’s been investigated, and it does. The heavy cutlery makes the food taste better. It’s surface matters, too. The mouth feel isn’t the same when eating with a plain spoon vs. from a spoon that was first dipped in lemon juice and then in sugar or ground coffee (let it dry first).

There is indeed, as the intro says, some fun fact on each of these pages. It is easy to see that these insights also can be interesting to play with for one’s dinner as well as being useful to the food industry, and to food science, be it to figure out the chemistry behind it or how to change the product, the production process, or even just the packaging. Some companies did so already. Like when you open a bag of (relatively cheap-ish) ground coffee: the smell is great, but that’s only because some extra aroma was added in the sealed air when it was packaged. Re-open the container (assuming you’ve transferred it into one), and the same coffee smell does not greet you anymore. The beat of the background music apparently also affects the speed of masticating. Of course, the basics of this sort of stuff were already known decades ago. For instance, the smell of fresh bread in the supermarket is most likely aroma in the airco, not the actual baking all the time when the shop is open (shown to increase buying bread, if not more), and the beat of the music in the supermarket affects your walking speed.

On those downsides of the book

After these chapters, it gradually goes downhill with the book’s contents (not necessarily the topics). There are still a few interesting science-y things to be learned from the research into airline food. For instance, that the overall ‘experience’ is different because of lower humidity (among other things) so your nose dries out and thus detects less aroma. They throw more sauce and more aromatic components into the food being served up in the air. However, the rest descends into a bunch of anecdotes and blabla about fancy restaurants, with the sources not being solid scientific outlets anymore, but mostly shoddy newspaper articles. Yes, I’m one of those who checks the footnotes (annoyingly as endnotes, but one can’t blame the author for that sort of publisher’s mistake). Worse, it gives the impression of being research-based, because it was so in the preceding chapters. Don’t be fooled by the notes in, especially, chapters 9-12. To give an example, there’s a cool-sounding section on “do robot cooks make good chefs?” in the ‘digital dining’ chapter. One expects an answer; but no, forget that. There’s some hyperbole with the author’s unfounded opinion and, to top it off, a derogatory remark about his wife probably getting excited about a 50K GBP kitchen gadget. Another example out of very many of this type: some opinion by some journalist who ate some day, in casu at über-fancy way-too-expensive-for-the-general-reader Pairet’s Ultraviolet (note 25 on p207). Daily Telegraph, New York Times, Independent, BBC, Condiment junkie, Daily Mail Online, more Daily Mail, BBC, FT Weekend Magazine, Wired, Newsweek etc. etc. Come on! Seriously?! It is supposed to be a popsci book, so then please don’t waste my time with useless anecdotes and gut-feeling opinions without (easily digestible) scientific explanations. Or they should have split the book in two: I) popsci and II) skippable waffle that any science editor ought not to have permitted to pass the popsci book writing and publication process. Professor Spence is encouraged to reflect a little on having gone down on a slippery slope a bit too much.

In closing

Although I couldn’t bear to finish reading the ‘experiential meal’ chapter, I did read the rest, and the final chapter. As any good meal that has to have a good start and finish, the final chapter is fine, including the closing [almost] with the Italian Futurists of the 1930s (or: weird dishes aren’t so novel after all). As to the suggestions for creating your own futurist dinner party, I can’t withhold here the final part of the list:

In conclusion: the book is worth reading, especially the first part. Cooking up a few experiments of my own sounds like a nice pastime.

Conjuring up or enhancing a new subdiscipline, say, gastromatics, computational gastronomy, or digital gastronomy could be fun. The first term is a bit too close to gastromatic (the first search hits are about personnel management software in catering), though, and the second one has been appropriated by the data mining and Big Data crowd already. Digital gastronomy has been coined as well and seems more inclusive on the technology side than the other two. If it all sounds far-fetched, here’s a small sampling: there are already computer cooking contests (at the case-based reasoning conferences) for coming up with the best recipe given certain constraints, a computational analysis of culinary evolution, data mining in food science and food pairing in Arab cuisine, robot cocktail makers are for sale (e.g., makr shakr and barbotics) and there’s also been research on robot baristas (e.g., the FusionBot and lots more), and more, much more, results over at least the past 10 years.

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One response to “Gastrophysics and follies

  1. Pingback: Book reviews for 2017 | Keet blog

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