The Food Issue: Accounting for Taste – How neuroscience (& packaging) can make food more flavorful

How neuroscience (& packaging) can make food more flavorful

Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, studies how the brain integrates information from the 5 human senses to produce a coherent impression of reality.

He argues that at least half of our experience of food and drink is determined by the forgotten flavor senses of vision, sound and touch.

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has experimented and delivers multisensory experiences in his restaurant The Fat Duck in the UK. The famous Sound of Sea dish comes with a headset playing sound of sea waves which makes the oysters taste better.


This is because the brain lights up so much more when 2 senses are stimulated together.


Spence experiences include:

  • Testing if a Pringles potato chip tastes different if the sound of its crunch is altered?
    • Indeed the chips that made louder, higher-pitch crunch were perceived to a 15% fresher than softer-sounding chips
    • Heston Blumenthal has collaborated with Spence on the Pringle experiment
  • Strawberry-flavoured mousse tastes 10% sweeter when served from a white container rather than a black one
  • Coffee tastes nearly twice as intense but only 2/3 as sweet when drunk from a white mug rather than a clear glass one
  • Adding 2.5 ounces to the weight of a plastic yogurt seem about 25% more filling
  • Bittersweet toffee tastes 10% more more bitter if eaten while listening low-pitched music

He’s currently working on pre-trials to determine whether altering the picj and tonal quality of a can’s opening hiss can make its content seems fizzier or flatter, warmer or colder. An all-new fizz-enhancing can is at least 2 years away.

No wonder he was a beneficiary of Unilever’s Cognitive Neuroscience Group for 10 years. In 2006, he conducted an study to see whether altering the volume and pitch of the sound from an aerosol can would affect how a person perceives the pleasantness or forcefulness of a deodorant: Unilever invested in a packaging redesign for Axe deodorants, target at young men, with a new nozzle technology that sounds noticeably louder than the gentler female-targeted Dove brand.

As evidence of the power of a package’s color to alter the taste of the content the 2011 white-colored can of Coke to raise funds for endangered polar bears was withdrawn when consumers complained that Coca-Cola had changed its secret formula. Spence has repeatedly shown that red is associated with sweetness. Participants perceived salty popcorn as tasting sweet when served in a red bowl.

Spence and other researchers have also found that curved shapes can enhance sweetness:

  • when Mondelez changed the classic rectangular chunks of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk into curved segments, customers complained that the chocolate tasted too sugary and sickly.
  • Diners reported that a cheesecake tasted 20% sweeter when eaten from a round white plate rather than a square one