Eating with our ears

Taste probably comes to mind first when you think about what constitutes our flavor perception. But there is much more to flavor than meets the eye (or should that be tongue?) and one sense that’s often overlooked is hearing.

We’ve all had that disappointing experience of biting into a stale apple or potato chip. There’s no crunch, no freshness, and ultimately, it’s not as enjoyable as we’d have liked. What makes this experience disappointing isn’t just to do with the textural properties or the taste of the potato chip or apple. The sound we hear, or rather don’t hear, when taking the first bite is also crucial in informing our flavor experience.

Flavor is formed in the brain

It might seem somewhat counterintuitive at first but flavor is not simply in the food or drink we’re consuming. Flavor is created in our brains from the information our senses are providing on what we’re eating or drinking. What makes flavor interesting is that all of our senses can affect how we perceive food and drink.

In other words, what we see, smell and feel can affect our flavor perception and according to a recent review by Professor Charles Spence, Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, one sense that’s often forgotten about is hearing.

The forgotten flavor sense

If someone were to ask you to rate the relative importance of various sensory attributes such as taste, smell, or color for flavor, you would probably be inclined to put what we hear right at the bottom of the list. In his review, Charles Spence calls sound the “forgotten flavour sense” because regular consumers and researchers in the field alike, often disregard its importance for flavor.

We interviewed him and DPhil student Janice Wang on the association between what we hear and the perception of flavor. Watch the video below to find out more.

From the loudness and pitch of the sound we hear while biting into an apple or potato chip, to the effect of music on the perceived flavor of wine or sweetness or bitterness of cinder toffee, what we hear affects how we perceive food and drink.

Why sound is important

Sounds of consumption, or the sounds that are created through our interaction with food, are important because they probably provide information on the textural properties of food. That’s why the perceived freshness and crispiness of an apple or potato chip can be affected by manipulating the crunch sound heard while biting into said apple or potato chip.

Music might affect flavor perception by creating expectations in the listener. For example, in the case of the cinder toffee experiment, the soundtracks played back to the subjects were selected based on a previous experiment, which showed that sweet tastes tend to be associated with higher-pitched sounds, while bitter tastes tend to be associated with lower-pitched sounds.

As Janice Wang points out in the interview, it’s not really understood why people make these associations. Depending on which soundtrack was played back to the subjects while eating the toffee, it might have created expectations of sweetness or bitterness. This, in turn, may have influenced the flavor perception and either increased the perceived sweetness or bitterness of the toffee.

It’s multisensory

These are just some of the possible explanations for why what we hear can affect our flavor experience. Research into multisensory integration, which looks at how our nervous system integrates input from various senses or sources, provides some clues on how these kind of associations might come about on a more fundamental level.

Next time you take a bite, remember to listen to the sounds around you. They probably play a bigger role in your enjoyment of whatever you’re biting into than you realize. And of course, so do all your other senses. As Charles Spence points out in the interview, flavor is perhaps the most multisensory of our everyday experiences.

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