Michelle Dickinson: Music preferences can influence sense of taste, sweet study finds

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Subjects were given samples of gelato made by Gianpaolo Grazioli and played music by artists such as Kanye West.
Subjects were given samples of gelato made by Gianpaolo Grazioli and played music by artists such as Kanye West.

Take a bite of food, slowly move it around your mouth while thinking about how it tastes and which flavours you can detect.

Next, close your eyes and listen to the background noise. Can you hear music, silence or the heavy hum of a nearby highway?

Taste is actually a chemical sense which is perceived by receptor cells on our taste buds. Flavour, however, is how we typically describe food and involves not only the tongue's taste buds but how the food smells, looks, its temperature and if spicy enough, how much pain is involved.

This means that the experience of food is a subjective science determined by genetics, previous experience and whether you have a blocked nose. Your genetics determine if you are a non-taster, taster or supertaster based on your sensitivity to bitter compounds. This sensitivity is affected by the alleles for tasting gene TAS2R38.

Supertasters have two copies of the "P" allele and are super-sensitive to the bitterness in foods such as brussels sprouts and grapefruit.

Researchers have realised our sense of sound also has an impact on how we perceive foods after a study where participants rated salty foods (crisps and cheese) as significantly less salty and sweet foods (biscuits and flapjacks) less sweet when eaten in environments with loud background noise.

When combined with another study which found that the pleasantness of cinnamon odours increased when Christmas carols were playing, the relatively new science of neurogastronomy, or how the brain creates flavour, opens up a plethora of unanswered research questions.

Gianpaolo Grazioli
Gianpaolo Grazioli

This week, research published in the journal Appetite by AUT with Gianpaolo Grazioli's Giapo icecream store on Queen St and research lab, added to our scientific knowledge of sweet-tasting sounds by studying how people perceived chocolate gelato when listening to different music genres. After answering an advertisement on Facebook, the 45 participants were given 10 hours' training in taste testing to help them detect and measure taste attributes such as bitterness and sweetness and emotional attributes like a scale for happiness.

They were then given a heaped teaspoon of dark, bittersweet or milk gelato and asked to rate their attributes while listening to one of 14 songs from artists including Kanye West, Louis Armstrong and Alanis Morissette.

The study showed that those who listened to music from a genre they didn't like found their gelato seemed more bitter and less pleasant, whereas the gelato was measured as sweeter and more pleasant from those listening to music they liked.

The scientific understanding of how this sound-induced flavour perception works is still poorly understood but there are a few theories. One suggestion is that the presence of loud noise distracts a person's attention from what they are eating while a second theory suggests that loud and negative sounds can elicit a stress response depressing hedonic responses to the flavour of the food. This at least explains why it's so hard to get a good aeroplane meal. Combining loud background engine noise which suppresses saltiness, sweetness and overall food enjoyment with high altitude which blocks nasal passages seems like the perfect recipe for a bland tasteless meal.

And if you run a restaurant, it's probably also a good idea to remove that old CD you've had playing on repeat for years and put some research into the favourite music genres of your clientele to enhance their dining experience.

So the next time you're caught eating chocolate while dancing to your favourite tune, don't worry, just tell everybody it's for science.

- NZ Herald

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