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The-Perfect-Meal

Charles Spence: the food scientist changing the way we eat

Oxford professor, Charles Spence’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

Oxford professor, Charles Spence’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.

Spence’s lab is surprisingly un-space-age. “Low-tech, paper and Blu-Tack stuff,” he readily admits. There are claustrophobic soundproof booths that resemble human-sized safes (“most of my PhD was done in one of those,” he says fondly), along with stacks of ancient-looking audiovisual equipment. By keeping overheads low, he can afford to work more creatively with cooks who can’t fund academic research themselves.

Historically, he says, the industry funding he receives has been seen as “what you do if you can’t do proper science”. But since the government has insisted that universities demonstrate their work has an impact, that people are interested in it, it is now seen as a strategically good thing to do. Companies paying for his research know the results may not go their way. “We’ve done projects that haven’t worked again and again. We’re not funded by those companies any more, as it happens,” he laughs…..

The Guardian: Read the full article

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