Most of us are satisfied with the banality of our everyday life meals, reserving praise and interest only for those dining experiences associated with special occasions – a meal out with friends at a fancy restaurant, a romantic dinner for two overlooking a scenic vista. But what if, by understanding how our senses work and being able to direct our attention to the multitude of multisensory events in our surroundings, we can transform even the simplest of dining experiences?
Imagine a typical everyday meal at a restaurant or a hawker centre. With just a little bit of attention you can begin to see that even a simple dining experience is actually a superb fusion of the sensual world around us. At this hypothetical eatery, the menu—specifically its visual design and food descriptions - allows you to imagine the (hopefully) delicious meal you're about to consume. This is how we embark on our journey through the senses. You've ordered, and eventually your food arrives. Immediately, the plated food's visual characteristics and aroma waft towards you giving a hint as to what you're about to put in your mouth. To dive into your dish, you may decide to pick up the food directly with your hands or use specific tableware — chopsticks, a fork and steak knife, or a soup spoon. As this happens, you may be immersed in a sonic atmosphere, possibly some drifting notes of background music or the hustle and bustle noise of a busy street. Then you take your first bite. You experience a habitual yet remarkable multisensory impression: that is, flavour. "Flavour" results primarily from the combination of taste and smell as well as some elements of touch 1. By now, effectively all your senses have been engaged.
Eating and drinking are multisensory experiences 2. And this is not specific to the restaurant or hawker centre. Think of, for example, the process of selecting the right durian in a fruit market. It involves assessing how it looks, exploring its surface with one's hands, assessing its smell quality, and even shaking it in order to feel and hear that characteristic sound that indicates that it is ripe. And all this happens before even tasting it! Therefore, it is important for us to become aware of how each of the senses are constantly and unavoidably engaged in our eating experiences. Ultimately, it can be up to us how we craft our multisensory eating experiences. As we will see, the careful consideration of the colours, shapes, sounds, textures, and other sensory stimuli that accompany eating and drinking can result in specific food perceptions and behaviours.
Let's start with the sense of vision. Colour, for example, can influence both our expectations and perception of what we eat. Just imagine the supermarket's produce section. Colour cues help us quickly spot, say, a juicy peach and decide whether it is ripe and sweet or under ripe and tart. Shapes can also help us to identify food products but may also provide some general information about the likely taste we will experience. My research has shown that most people associate sweet tastes with round shapes and sour and bitter tastes with angular shapes, in a manner that is consistent across countries as diverse as Colombia, England, and China 3. In fact, round and angular food-related shapes (as in plates, packages, fonts) seem, under certain circumstances, to boost how sweet or sour we expect and experience the food to be, respectively 4. Using the right visual cues (a curved shape), that is, those which more strongly relate to a given taste (sweetness), might enhance product liking and under certain circumstances prime consumers to perceive specific taste attributes more intensely. In that sense, visual (and other sensory) attributes can be thought of as means to season our taste experiences. This can be particularly relevant in light of the increasing incidence of obesity and sugar-related diseases in Asia and the world.
The visual world is, of course, complex, and intertwined with the worlds of the other senses. That said, different actors in the Asian food and beverage industry are trying to differentiate based on the multisensory experiences that they offer. For instance, themed restaurants and cafes such as The White Rabit (a restored chapel), Blisshouse (a fairytale-themed cafe), and NOX – Dine in the Dark (a dining experience in the dark), are now common in Singapore and other Asian countries 5. This is certainly not limited to eateries but extends to food and drink packaging, and goes beyond the food industry. One example is the Korean beauty industry where many firms are now considering fragrances as a means to influence moods, innovative texture or colour changing products that enhance specific product attributes, and interactive packaging that facilitate playful interactions 6.
A key question that remains to be answered though is, to what extent is this approach capitalising on the science of the human senses? Whilst the answer is not altogether clear, some restaurants such as Ultraviolet 7 by Paul Pairet in China and Tokyo's Sagaya 8 (in collaboration with TeamLab) seem to be considering it. They are developing multisensory immersive ambiences that go beyond tradition and which involve new technologies that broaden the scope of the multisensory interactions with the food 9,10. Such technology interventions are being used for food entertainment, to nudge people toward healthier food behaviours, and to influence the perception of flavour.
Beyond the visual world, some research, including my own, is also showing that auditory cues, such as the ambient noise or any music that might be playing when we eat can impact our food experiences 11. For example, people appear to evaluate sweet taste solutions as less intense when exposed to the noise of an airplane cabin than in silence. By contrast, people evaluate umami (the taste of monosodium glutamate), a key taste/ingredient of Asian cuisine, as more intense under the same noise 12. Perhaps this explains why people order umami-rich tomato juice or Bloody Mary's on airplanes, as such beverages may be unaffected by the droning noise 13. Noise can change both how perceive and behave toward what eat. Do foods rich in umami feel different when you eat them in busy (and noisy) areas of cities such as Singapore and Shanghai or the (more quiet) country side of the corresponding countries? Just as you might prefer to eat an ice cream cone to the sound of chirping birds in a park rather than to the noise of a construction site, sound, as one of many factors in this scenario, can play an important part in the experience of food. Brands too need to identify the situations in which consumers use their products and the optimal multisensory mix that ensures consumers perceive the qualities of the product at their best. This in turn, can strengthen the association between consumers and the brands that go that extra mile to make their product experience superlative.
Now that scientists are revealing how the different senses interact while we eat, savvy restaurants, cafes, and food companies may wish to use this knowledge to develop superior and healthier consumption experiences for their customers. And it's not just businesses that can benefit from these insights. The next time you go out to eat, buy groceries at the supermarket, or invite your friends over for dinner, think carefully and critically about the multisensory components of these experiences. A simple exercise that you can do consists of thinking about each of the traditional senses: vision, taste, audition, touch, and smell. Then think of the specific elements of the experience, the colours, shapes, textures, music or noise, and so on, and be aware of how it they all combine to enhance your culinary experience. Through an understanding of the ways our senses are talking to and affecting each other when we eat, we can also begin to design healthier, but also more delicious and memorable food and drink experiences for ourselves and for others.
About the authors
Dr. Carlos Velasco is an Assistant Professor at BI Norwegian Business School, where he recently co-founded the Center for Multisensory Marketing, and an ACI Fellow. For more information, visit www.carlosvelasco.co.uk.
I'd like to thank Emley Kerry and Prof. Gemma Calvert for her thoughtful suggestions for this piece.