The Five Senses of Flavour

(September 2nd, 2014) Want to make your next dinner a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Finnish researchers recently published a cookbook that appeals to all your senses. So, how does the culmination of food, sound and music taste?

Sweet, salty, spicy … just the mere sight of food seems to awaken our taste buds. Hearing and touching also contribute to the whole gourmet adventure, coupled with the more familiar senses of taste and smell. The flavour of food is something we enjoy with all our five senses.

Scientists know this to be true but how exactly does this blend of sensory stimuli affect our experience with food? This is what a group of researchers from Turku University in Finland set out to explore. After playing around with the idea: a “taste of music”, Anu Hopia, Professor at the Functional Foods Forum, received funding to support a three-year project to combine scientific research with experimental and creative work developed by musicians, artists and chefs. The project was named KUMURU – KUlttuuri (Culture), MUsiikki (Music) and RUoka (Food) – and ran from 2011 to 2013.

“Our project included not only research but we also wanted to invite artists, chefs and artisans to take part in our workshops,” says Hopia. “We built an interdisciplinary group of individuals, who were experts in their own field but also open minded and curious.” One of these experts was Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Oxford University, UK, and whose career includes working with some of the world’s best chefs, such as Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal. “When you put the psychologists/sensory scientists together with sound designers/composers and chefs/molecular mixologists, you can have lots of fun. I really think this is an area where interdisciplinary collaboration is key,” says Spence.

The result was not your average research paper but a cookbook with a twist: “5D Cookbook” contains a small selection of carefully designed recipes, sprinkled with the scientific results from the KUMURU project. The team found that, for example, people consistently associated particular instruments and musical notes with a specific type of wine. The fruitiness of raspberry and blackberry in wine were always matched with higher notes and wind instruments, whereas musky and smoky aromas were paired with brass and string instruments and lower notes. Importantly, the wine tasted better if accompanied by the “correct” music.

On the other hand, when musicians were asked to improvise based on different taste words, “sour” improvisations were fast and high-pitched but “sweet” tended to be slower and softer. Incredibly, when an audience unaware of the taste word associated with each piece of music was asked to prepare a drink from a choice of ingredients, their selection reflected the music they were listening to.

From seminars and panel discussions, to music performances and gala dinners, researchers experimented with various types of activities to entice the public’s participation. “We learnt that certain types of activities were more favoured - the more experimental the activity was, the more suspicious people were,” explains Hopia, but overall “it was a pleasure to notice how at first hesitant and suspicious participants experienced and enjoyed the effect of music on taste perception”.

The researcher plans to continue introducing this concept to the public as a new platform to showcase many artists' and chefs' work. “Researchers can do their own bit to share but it really is the artists who make the innovations for the public.” The team also has several research projects to continue studying visual and auditory stimulus on our food choices and how much we appreciate food. “All the participants of this project would like to continue collaboration and we also have received some new contacts to join this work,” concludes Hopia.

Describing the project as way ahead of its time, Spence believes it will be a sure way to put the music-food intersection on the map. “The meetings in Finland have been very unique get-togethers and the first of their kind.”

The 5D Cookbook, edited by Anu Hopia and Susanna Ihanus, is freely available online both in English and Finnish.

Alex Reis

Photo: Timo Aalto, from 5D Cookbook

Last Changes: 10.10.2014