The Weird Science Behind Why You Love Pringles
Science has spoken, and it turns out that Pringles are perfect chips -- at least, they're perfect chips for testing how sound affects your eating experience.
Yes, sound. Chefs have long known that visual presentation plays a role in the eating experience, and smell is inextricably linked with taste, but new research shows that flavor is even more complex than previously believed. And one scientist has made a career of studying the interactions of senses, and what that might mean for the future of food.
Yes, there's someone who studies chips for a living
Charles Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, where he runs the Crossmodal Research Laboratory. This is the sort of lab that makes its name exploring the myriad ways the senses interact with and influence each other, which departs from the traditional approach of examining the senses in isolation. His unconventional research angle earned Spence a bit of unconventional "praise" -- he and his co-author, Massimiliano Zampini, took home the Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition in 2008 for their research on potato chips.
Joke awards aside, Spence has made some surprising discoveries about the way humans taste. For his seminal potato chip study, he brought participants into a booth, where he had them wear headphones and take bites of Pringles into a microphone. He controlled the volume and frequency of the crunch each participant heard through the headphones, and found that when hearing a louder and/or higher-pitched crunch, participants perceived chips to be fresher and crisper.
That's weird, but... what's the point?
Spence concedes that the implications of perceiving Pringles to be fresher when they crunch more loudly may not be readily apparent, but that doesn't mean it's frivolous, the research equivalent of a party trick. “Most of the research in the lab, industry-funded or otherwise, sits at the border between basic -- or lab -- research, taking the latest insights about how our brains connect our senses,” he explains. “Then we see how those insights can be applied to real life.”
Spence is working to prove that multisensory experiences, such as sound and color, may radically alter your eating experience, without your even knowing it. You might see where this is going. Corporations looking to find the packaging for products or change the composition of foods now often fund Spence's experiments, hoping to unlock yet another door to the stomachs, hearts, and wallets of consumers.
Finding the perfect eating environment
Lest you think the only application of this research is determining the optimal color of Pringles cans, many restaurateurs and chefs are paying attention to Spence’s work and strive to create a multisensory experience to give patrons an enhanced dining experience. Some of these restaurants -- including The Fat Duck, led by Heston Blumenthal -- have partnered with Spence when creating their dishes to make sure the science behind the experience holds up to their own findings.
Some of the factors that influence taste are intuitive, if you think about it for a moment. “One could wonder how the loud noise and music in a pub or bar affects our enjoyment of crunchy foods,” Spence points out. “Or, how anyone eating a crunchy food while wearing headphones and playing music may be interfering with their experience and enjoyment.”
As with the loud, high-pitched crunch of a "fresher" Pringle, listening to the right type of noise can enhance many dishes. Blumenthal's Sound of the Sea, for example, is a seafood dish served with an iPod tucked into a conch shell, a technique designed in conjunction with Spence.
"I did a series of tests with Charles Spence at Oxford University three years ago, which revealed that sound can really enhance the sense of taste,” Blumenthal has said. "We ate an oyster while listening to the sea and it tasted stronger and saltier than when we ate it while listening to barnyard noises, for example.”
The future of multisensory eating
Spence has penned The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining, in which he shares his findings so far and speculates what's to come. While he acknowledges the opportunity for companies to engineer their packaging and product experience, he recognizes the trend away from processed food, meaning any applications for mass-produced meals will have to be very calculated.
“One opportunity I see is to change packaging sounds to a create distinctive, signature sound of opening or use,” Spence says. “Another idea is to create a sound that conveys some functional benefit in terms of product experience. We are often looking for a sweet spot at the intersection of those two things, where the sound of opening and use is distinctive enough to be ‘owned’ by a particular brand, but at the same time conveys a functional benefit.”
Yes, that's a lot to take in, but return to the basic example of chips; Spence theorizes that companies could make the bag rattle louder (SunChips, anyone?) so that consumers perceive the contents as crunchier.
Spence has also moved on to examining the visual cues that can affect the dining experience, including colors. In one study, for example, he found that people plating food onto the same color plate -- in this case, red pasta sauce on a red plate, or white pasta sauce on a white plate -- served themselves significantly larger portions. The practicality of this knowledge is pretty obvious to anyone who's trying portion control, or is currently at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“There is certainly an emerging body of knowledge, and the more evidence we get that vision and hearing are connected, the stronger the reason to believe that when we start investigating sound and touch, or touch and scent, that they, too, will be connected in much the same way,” Spence observes. “Underpinning much of our research is belief that there are many fundamental issues and questions about our experience that no one investigates.” You get the feeling that the "no one investigates" part is genuine, as he continues offering potential research angles, like whether or not eating with your hands rather than cutlery can make your food taste better.
Despite the granular focus of his work, Spence believes that mindful eating is the best way to eat, in order to get the most out of the flavor. So the next time you're snacking while watching the television, remember that your favorite show could be keeping you from enjoying those Pringles to the fullest. If for no other reason than you'll have a harder time hearing that crunch.
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