Book Review: Gastrophysics by Charles Spence

Book Review: Gastrophysics, by Prof Charles Spence

From the man who made the potato chip crisper, comes a fascinating and fun examination of the myriad of things which influence how food and drink taste.


Professor Charles Spence is head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University and winner of the 2008 Ig Noble Prize for nutrition ‘for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is’. In his research, Spence investigates the whole experience of food working with top chefs such as Heston Blumenthal from The Fat Duck restaurant.

I was surprised to read that tomato juice makes up 27% of drinks purchased on planes and of the 1000 people surveyed, almost a quarter of them said they would never order it on the ground, so why do they order it at 35,000 feet? This example neatly sums up Gastrophysics – it’s all about the myriad of things which influence how food and drink taste; how much we are likely to eat in different situations – alone or in a group; at the table rather than in front of the TV; the difference crockery, cutlery, presentation or even background noise can make.

Our taste buds are sensitive to five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (which means ‘delicious’ or ‘yummy’) and is found in mushrooms, parmesan cheese and – surprise, surprise – tomatoes. Research has demonstrated that there are several factors on planes that affect our ability to taste: background noise of 80-85 decibels; lower humidity; stale recirculated air; and lower cabin pressure can all diminish our sense of taste. However, not all tastes are equally affected and Professor Spence speculates that the reason many people order tomato juice is because the perception of umami is less affected than other tastes and one thus avoids the bland flavourless taste of most airline food or drinks.

Although the book is meticulously referenced, as one would expect from an Oxford academic, it is still highly readable for a general audience. Just because the research is rigorous doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun. For instance, The Colour Lab, a huge wine tasting with over 3,000 participants was held over a 2014 holiday weekend in London. Each person was given a glass of Spanish Rioja in a black glass and subjected to white, red and green ambient lighting plus ‘sweet ‘or ‘sour’ music. A 15-20% variation in response was noted between different audio visual pairings. Red light and sweet music enhanced the fruitiness of the wine while green light and sour music brought fresh, sharper notes to the fore.

A somewhat sceptical winemaker, who did not believe lighting could make a difference, ‘now uses the changes in ambient lighting as a party trick himself when leading informal wine tastings’ (page 126). Next time you’re at a cellar door tasting, take note of the lighting and any background music and see for yourself what taste aspect the winemaker might be trying to emphasise.

I don’t have the space to discuss all the fascinating information in Gastrophysics so you’ll need to read it for yourself. Through discovering the tricks of the trade used by food manufacturers, chefs and restaurants, beverage makers, marketing and advertising agencies and psychologists like Professor Spence to encourage us to buy and consume their products, you’ll be better able to make more informed choices.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  9

Released by: Penguin Australia
Release Date: March 2017
RRP: $32.99 trade paperback, $39.99 hardback

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