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Look, Listen, Taste


If I try opening a bag of chips in a quiet movie theater, it's like a tiny sack of firecrackers, and everybody's looking at you, you know? Why do the bags have to be so noisy? Well, what if that crinkly plastic made the chips a little bit crunchier? Made you think that they were a little bit crunchier? What if senses other than taste and texture can change the way you feel about food? Here with me now is Marc Abrahams, editor of the "Annals of Improbable Research," to tell us how to use sights and sounds to make your sugar sweeter, your salt saltier and your strawberry mousses, well, moussier, I guess. Well, you get the idea. Hi, Marc. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Hi, Ira. You forgot to say, and make your life livelier.


FLATOW: Well, I left it for you to say that.


FLATOW: It's interesting, these papers that you brought with you, or sent to us, about how - these are the tricks that people use, and they can actually test out whether they work or not.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. These are things that a lot of good cooks probably know, whether they realized they know them or not. But exactly what these things are are a little fuzzy because everybody's a little different. There are some scientists in England and there are other groups, especially in the Netherlands, that have been running tests for years, and they tend to sound kind of bizarre. They'll prepare some food. They'll give it to different people to eat. And later, the people will realize that something else was changing while they were eating it, something in the atmosphere.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And they - in one test, they gave people some ice cream that tasted like bacon?

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. This is - Charles Spence is the main scientist. He's at the University of Oxford. He teamed up with one of the famous chefs in England, and they made something which sounds really crazy, bacon and egg ice cream, which I'm told is really pretty good, tastes like bacon and eggs. And they served bacon and egg ice cream to a bunch of people. And they had them do some sort of rating about how bacony does it taste, or how eggy does it taste? And they would play sounds. And whenever they would play the sound of frying bacon, you know, that crackling sound, people would consistently say that the thing tasted a lot more bacony to them...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And...

ABRAHAMS: ...because the sound was different.

FLATOW: Yeah. And also, they - when they gave people different kinds of spoons, it affected what they thought about the food.

ABRAHAMS: Oh, they've done all kinds of things. The spoon is actually a gigantic question, not necessarily important, but gigantic.


ABRAHAMS: What the spoon is made of, of course, can change things because somebody else did some tests not that long ago with spoons made of different metals and found out that - what a lot of people believe - that different metal tastes different to your tongue - that for many people that's true. For some people, it's not so true. But they - these guys also played with things like what's the shape of the spoon? What's the color of the spoon? How heavy is it? All those things had some effect on people. The more interesting thing to me, at least today, is when people said the taste - that actually tasted different because of how it was served or what it was served in it. It was sweeter. It was saltier, whatever. You would think that couldn't change.

FLATOW: But it did. And one - I got about a few seconds here. But one of the more fascinating things, to me, from the study is that people were willing to pay almost 50 percent more for the same wine if it was served under a red light than if was under a white light.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, quite amazing, huh? And things served on different colored plates sometimes tasted sweeter to them.

FLATOW: Wow. Thank you, Marc. We'll see you again.

ABRAHAMS: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend. Marc Abrahams, editor for the "Annals of Improbable Research" and a regular guest on our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.