Course Highlight: Food and the Senses

by Lara Zelman

All Gastronomy students take the course Food and the Senses, a class that marries the humanities and scientific approaches to understanding the physical senses in relation to food experiences. Graduate student Lara Zelman questions and discusses the complex relationship between the senses, brain signals, and external influences on perceptions of food.

The article “Flavor and the Brain” by Dana Small defines flavor as “a perception that includes gustatory, oral-somatosensory, and retronasal olfactory signals that arise from the mouth as foods and beverages are consumed.” Small discusses that “although the sights, sounds and smells of foods that occur just before, or in the absence of eating, can impact flavor perception, it is argued that these sensory signals exert their influence by creating expectations based upon prior associations.” The discussion touches on “top-down” influences including attention, expectations, and beliefs and how they impact neural and perceptual responses. For example, being told about the intensity of a flavor can impact the resulting response in the brain. In the context of her article, Small discusses how vision influences flavor, similarly to how verbal labels and cues might create expectations about the sensory experience. These top-down mechanisms bias “the neural code towards expected experiences.”

After reading the article I began to think about how flavor is influenced by expectation, specifically in the context of dining out at restaurants. What information influences and shapes the diner’s expectations, and how does this impact the diner’s perception of flavor? Is it influenced by expectations created before the dining experience as well as during? When information is readily available, how does this change the dining experience? If the diner is armed with photographs and descriptions prior to eating, will the flavor he experiences be different than if he just ordered off the menu with no prior knowledge? There are numerous ways to get information before dining out. Information on restaurants is available on websites, on television, in magazines, in guidebooks, and in newspapers. How does this impact the diner’s sensory experience? Websites like Tasted Menu and smart phone apps like Nosh let users post reviews and photographs of individual menu items at restaurants. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram allow users to post real-time accounts of their dining experience. How does this information and visual representation shape the diner’s expectations?

Information on food is also presented through both food advertising and television programming. There are numerous television programs that feature restaurant dishes, like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. What impact does watching this type of program have on a viewer’s future dining experience? Viewers watch featured chefs prepare dishes, eat, and describe their experience. The viewer is getting a visual (and somewhat auditory) play-by-play of the sensory experience of the host – smells, texture, and flavor – but without actually experiencing them. Areas for future study could look at the impact that this prior information has on shaping expectations and the resulting brain response and perception of flavor. From a marketing perspective, restaurants and food companies could understand how this type of information either positively or negatively impacts the diner’s experience.

Lara is a BU graduate and works full-time as a marketing manager. She is currently taking the course Food and the Senses. Read her full post and follow Lara on her blog at GoodCookDoris.com.

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