The changing way we eat
This article was commissioned before Covid-19

Words Dominic Nicholls
Illustrations by Scaredy Cat

A staple ingredient of many science fiction movies is the ‘food pill’; a small tablet containing all of humanity’s daily nutritional needs. While not light-years from reality, this glimpse of the future fails to acknowledge the important social benefits humans derive from food and communal dining. 

But food alone is thought to be only a small, if central, part of what makes up a fabulous meal. Chefs and scientists (not a mutually exclusive bunch) are increasingly blending science, technology and gastronomy to stimulate all the senses, in an effort to produce the greatest dining experience humanity has ever known.

The Provençal Rosé paradox, according to Charles Spence of Oxford University, describes the unwelcome magic trick whereby that delightful bottle of wine sampled on holiday, has seemingly turned to vinegar when opened at home.

The wine may be the same, but the relaxed mind and sparkling company may not have survived the transit. It depends on how the brain absorbs and interprets information from all five senses.

Multi-sensory perception, as it is known, is becoming better understood and exploited. The relationship between taste and smell is a particular favourite study. These two senses, compared to the others, are filtered to a lesser degree on the way to the limbic system; the part of the brain processing memory and emotion.

Foodies are excited. No more so than Chef Andoni Aduriz, holder of two Michelin stars at Mugaritz restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. “In every corner of the world food is becoming a priority for research, innovation and creativity”, he says.

Hanne Colf, owner and chef at Louie Louie in Camberwell, London, says food appeals to all of the senses at the same time. “There’s no food I don’t like,” she tells me, “I’ll try everything, and I find value in most types of food. So having a bad meal doesn’t exist for me.”
“One of the greatest meals I’ve ever had would be at the Camberwell Arms (a pub in London)”. Hanne explains that the head chef had built and created a place she could go to with her friends and which she could afford. “The quality of the food there blew me away. He made it feel accessible. It was local to me, and it came into my space, I didn’t have to travel for it. You can get incredible food from places that don’t cost you a lot. I can’t align spending lots of money with a really good experience. The food’s allowed to be a bit secondary, which is weird because I think food is important. When I’m having a meal with friends, it’s more important that I’m with my friends than the meal I’m having.”

Diners’ emotions are manipulated in artful ways. At The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s three-Michelin starred restaurant in Britain; reminder cards delivered a month before a reservation are scented with the same oil contained in the wooden door frame through which a diner passes on the big day.

Likewise, goodie bags full of sweets repeat flavours experienced at the table for weeks after (or days, depending on the diner’s sweet tooth). They are both subtle ways of elongating and elevating the meal in the diner’s memory.

Heavy cutlery is also perceived to herald more sophisticated food. (Concorde eschewed the fuel-saving properties of light cutlery for this reason.) And when food was laid out like Wassily Kandinsky’s Painting No. 201 in a study some years ago, diners preferred the meal (and we’re prepared to pay more for it) to a plate of identical but ordinarily-presented ingredients.

In its hunger for information, the brain can be seduced by the senses to alter flavours, experiences and memories. As Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy and Centre for the Study of the Senses at London University, advises, “if you don’t like the wine, change the music”.

The implications go wider than the dinner table.

Ultimately our five senses are received in the brain as electrical signals. So Professor Adrian Cheok of City University in London produced his own. Delivering an electrical current between 50 Hz and 1 kHz to this sceptical volunteer’s tongue, Mr Cheok electrically produced a taste sensation of lemon. The possibility exists then that in the future humans may transmit taste over the internet.

Or, through implanted devices, for example, electrically alter or invent flavours.

Children could be encouraged to eat unpleasant tasting but healthy foods. People with diabetes could enjoy sweet foods without a trace of sugar. Or people living with dementia could be repeatedly drawn back to the present through a memory of their favourite flavour.

Food for thought.