Charles Spence: the food scientist changing the way we eat

The Guardian – September 24, 2014


An Oxford professor’s research into what affects flavour, from who we eat with to background noise, has influenced food-industry giants and top chefs alike. Now his new book brings food science to the home cook, too.

Charles Spence will eat just about anything. “We’ve got bee larvae ice-cream at home,” says the Oxford professor of experimental psychology in his office, which looks out across the park towards the river Cherwell.They may look like maggots, but they taste good: “a little nutty, a little floral”. Besides, he adds, “this is the future”.

How to make bug-eating acceptable to westerners is one of the many gustatory challenges that he and his team are tackling. Through his studies into how the senses interact to form our perception of flavour, Spence is quietly influencing what we eat and drink, from the output of food-industry giants (he sits on the scientific advisory board of PepsiCo and much of his lab’s work is funded by Unilever), to the menus of leading restaurants (he has collaborated with Heston Blumenthal for 12 years).

Spence and his peers have, through a line of scientific inquiry that is informally referred to as gastrophysics, studied in minute detail how we experience food and drink. Who we eat with; how food is arranged and described; the colour, texture and weight of plates and cutlery; background noise – all these things affect taste. Now he and his colleague Betina Piqueras-Fiszman have collated this knowledge into a book, The Perfect Meal, packed with insights that are fascinating to anyone in possession of an appetite. For example, the person in a group who orders first in a restaurant enjoys their food more. And we consume about 35% more food when eating with one other person, rising to 75% more when dining with three others.

Read more from the source: the Guardian