The multi sensory experience of eating

Could weighted cutlery affect our flavour expectations?
22 August 2023

Interview with 

Charles Spence, University of Oxford




To provide some final thoughts on what they’d heard, Chris Smith asked experimental psychologist, and food and drink guru, Charles Spence whether who was cooking might make a difference to how food tastes…

Charles - I think we can think of the star chef as a kind of brand and, generally, if we like the brand things taste better as a result. I think we very often taste what we expect to taste as much as actually what we have in our mouth. We make a prediction about what food is going to taste like. So, if it comes from a star chef, we think it's going to be great. And then when we put the food in our mouth, we check it to see if it's what we expected. And if it is, then we live in the world of our flavour expectations as much as in the world of our experience itself. But of course it's not just the chefs who might boost our perception of the taste of the food, the fact that you were making the tempura yourselves probably also has a role to play. And there's research out there showing that if you give people partly prepared meals to finish off in their own kitchen and then you give them a dish that you say, well, you finish that dish off yourself, you are part of the process of cooking versus somebody else. If your colleague made it then we all think that the food that we had a hand in making tastes better than that was made by somebody else, even if it's identical food. It's kind of like the Ikea effect in the kitchen.

Chris - Someone did say to me that even the weight of the cutlery and the chink of the glasses, that also affects our perception of how good or how high quality a food stuff is.

Charles - Absolutely. So the first thing I do when I go to a restaurant is to pick up the cutlery, the knife and the fork, and give it a little balance in my hand, see how heavy it is. We've done a number of studies now both in the laboratory but also in fancy five star hotel restaurants where we take large groups of people and on half the tables we put the heaviest cutlery we can find, and for the other half the tables we just put the light, canteen cutlery instead and serve people exactly the same food in exactly the same place on exactly the same day. When we ask them to rate how much they like the food, how much they'd be willing to pay for it, a dish like that in a place like they find themselves in, time and again we find that the heavier the cutlery the better people rate the food and the more they're willing to pay for it. So one of the simplest ways perhaps to improve the taste of your food.

Chris - Was Alex's advice to cook tempura particularly sage in the sense that he made me eat something crunchy because I also read somewhere that we've evolved to like crunchy stuff because our brain says fresh if it's crunchy.

Charles - Absolutely. I was listening to the sound of the crunch and thought it sounded very tasty. And indeed, most of the things we like, especially the snack foods, tend to be noisy. They're crispy, crunchy, crackly, even creamy and carbonated food makes a sound. Our brains seem to like that. And whether that's because it signals freshness in fresh produce or perhaps fat content in baked and fried goods, we're not quite sure yet, but certainly it is a very appealing sensation even though it doesn't directly contribute to any nutrients or anything we need in our diet. Nevertheless, we like that sonic reassurance, I suppose, that what we're eating is perhaps fresh.


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