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Sensing taste buds: What makes eating so satisfying for us?

world Updated: Apr 23, 2013 23:07 IST

There’s no doubt that research into the elaborate multisensory interplay that makes eating and drinking so satisfying has resulted in a great deal of culinary fun in recent years. From dining-in-the-dark restaurants to Heston Blumenthal’s introduction of popping-candy to Little Chef menus, edible celebrations of our growing scientific nouse in this area abound. Now there’s even an unlikely collaboration between Heinz Baked Beans and those debonair self-styled “food architects” Bompas and Parr involving tactile bowls and musical spoons – perhaps an indication that this trend has peaked.

Either way, you don’t need gimmicks to marvel at the intricate sequence of stimuli that conjures the overall flavour of, say, a Twix. I used to chip the chocolate off the sides with my incisors, relishing the moment each tiny slab broke free and began to melt in my mouth. From the pleasing rustle and tear of the packet, to the sweet, creaminess that still coated the mouth after swallowing, each of my senses were tickled. “They’re interacting and modulating one another,” says Professor Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses. “It’s actually one of the more complicated things the brain has to do, to put all this together.”

First impressions
We will only touch food and drink that meets our rigorous aesthetic standards. When it comes to wine, for example, “the looking element is really important,” says Emily O’Hare of London’s River Cafe.

Taste buds
When food enters the mouth, taste, smell and touch fuse together to produce that “unique flavour experience,” as Smith has it. So, for instance, you know something is menthol flavoured when you’re getting a minty aroma, bitter taste and cooling sensation. The old tongue map, which has sweet at the tip, salt either side of the tip, sour further along the sides and bitter at the back, has been roundly rubbished.

Sound effects
Credit in crunch: a 2008 study showed that people think Pringles “taste” stale when they’re less crunchy.