How Does Food Texture Affect Taste?

How Does Food Texture Affect Taste?

Researchers around the world are working hard to better understand the science of food. The stakes are high: obesity alone costs the world economy $2 trillion each year, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. This condition, along with such diseases as diabetes and heart disease, would lessen if the world’s appetite were reduced.

In so much of the developed world, over-consumption is a scourge. Humans in a position to do so seem programmed — or at the very least inclined — to eat more than they need. But is there a way to override this evolutionary impulse?  If food can be made to taste better, and seem more filling, wouldn’t many, feeling more satiated, refrain from overeating? Scientists are betting on it, while working hard to understand the science of taste, and even the composition of food to find out.

“To our brains, ‘taste’ is actually a fusion of a food's taste, smell and touch into a single sensation,” Scientific American reports. In other words, texture and odor play as important a role as taste buds in the way we experience what we eat. 

If there were ways to make people feel fuller, while consuming fewer calories, the positive implications would be enormous — not just to global health but to the environment and our natural resources.

Such solutions may be closer than we think. As recent research from BioMed Central at the UK’s University of Sussex has shown, even subtle modifications in texture, flavor, and creaminess of a fruit yogurt beverage increased the body’s expectation that the beverage would be filling. After experimenters added tara gum, a thickening agent, to the drink, the study subjects’ hunger was uniformly suppressed, regardless of the drink’s actual calorie content. Its taste, meanwhile, was unchanged. 

"Hunger and fullness are complicated issues because it is not just the calories in a food or drink that make it filling,” said Dr. Keri McCrickerd, who led the study. “Signals from the stomach are important but so too is how the drink feels in the mouth.”  The experiment concluded that subjects who are not trained in food tasting pick up subtle differences in a beverage’s texture — even as its taste remains the same.  

All around the world, DuPont researchers are conducting relevant studies, including ones on mouthfeel, the physical and chemical interaction of food in the mouth, and the taste and texture of food. At DuPont’s Brabrand Global Food Research Center in Denmark, scientists are examining how ingredients act and interact in food systems, starting at the molecular level, in order to develop new products, solutions, applications, and technologies. Current research taking place at Brabrand includes work on improving the sensory and nutritional properties of bread, soy yogurt and meat alternatives. 

Other scientists are taking different approaches, even reconstituting food as we know it. One of these is Dr. Hervé This, a physical chemist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research in Paris and a cofounder of the food science known as molecular gastronomy, which examines the physical and chemical reactions that occur as food is cooked.  

Dr. This believes that world poverty would be drastically reduced, and even eradicated, if we all adopted a new, science-based form of cooking. In a recent New York Times article, Dr. This explained that, by breaking down food — transforming its nutrients and flavors into powders and liquids that don’t need to be refrigerated, or even cooked — our entire planet could be fed for a fraction of what it costs to do so now.  

Some of Dr. This’s recipes, such as a steak that resembles a rolled-up, hot pink pancake, have a startling appearance. While its looks may not whet one’s appetite, this deconstructed dish actually does taste like sirloin. Perhaps with a little training, the world’s consumers could adapt? 

One way or the other, whether by playing with a food’s texture so that the body feels full on fewer calories, or creating eminently portable foodstuffs in a lab, the answers to the world’s intractable-seeming problems of global health and hunger may be closer to being solved than ever before.