Matters of taste
Tests to show what we really think
IT’S a taste test with a twist; sensory scientists are using technology to tap into our real response to food and drink.
Sampling a new product can prompt people to tell porky pies about their true feelings to new flavours, out of a desire to be polite.
In addition, more than 70 per cent of our response to food is unconscious, making it hard to express our experience in words.
But a new sensory lab at the University of Melbourne is using biometric data to detect tiny physiological signs that give the game away.
Dr Sigfredo Fuentes and his team are measuring our reactions to products to see which ones will be the toast of the town.
A taster’s heart rate, body temperature, pupil dilation and tiny facial expressions can be tracked to determine someone’s true reaction to the taste and texture of food and drink.
It may be a slight pursing of the lips or furrowing of the brow lasting less than a second, in response to a sour or bitter taste.
“For instance, with chocolate we know that people usually smile unconsciously when they taste it, open their eyes slightly and move closer to it,” Dr Fuentes said.
Scientists are also using the technology to trial microencapsulation in food, which may lead to a sweet treat that slowly releases flavours and aromas as you eat it — not too dissimilar from Willy Wonka’s three-course-dinner chewing gum.
It would also make it possible to add a vitamin or nutrient, like fish oil, to a food without the eater even being aware of it.
Discovering what’s delicious is key to developing new foods, with many untested products failing to cut the mustard when they hit the market. It may also allow small and medium-sized companies to design and trial new products or repurpose them for another palate.
Sensory science can also be used to determine a consumer’s response to packaging and labels.
In the lab, food and drink are passed through a small shutter door and the participant is asked about taste and texture.
A camera records their facial expressions, even those that last less than a second, which are analysed to help determine which product is their cup of tea.
Tasters Thejani and Nadeesha Gunaratne tuck into some chocolate. Picture: NICKI CONNOLLY