Consumer goods giant Unilever is currently conducting research on how multisensory perception affects food, as it seeks new ways to boost consumers’ enjoyment of its products.
As well as investigating more obvious interrelations such as appearance, texture and smell, its R&D department teamed up with the University of Manchester on a project to investigate the effect of background sound in enhancing the taste of food.
The findings, published in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Food Quality and Preference, could influence future recipe formulation based on intended eating settings – and open up a host of new marketing opportunities.
Eating in tune
The research involved 48 Manchester University students (39 women and 9 men) blind tasting of an assortment of sweet and savoury foods such as biscuits, flapjacks, cheese crackers and Marmite flavoured rice crackers while background noise played. The participants recorded how much they liked both each food and each background sound.
The researchers observed that they were more likely to like the taste when they also liked the sound.
The second strand of the research looked at perceived taste and crunchiness, and the level of the background noise was changed. The team noticed that foods seemed to taste less salty or sugary as the noise level increase – and more so when noise decreases.
Perceived crunchiness decreased as noise increased.
Unilever scientist Andy Woods said the findings could be applied in a food service setting, as well as for informing product development.
“A salad bar chain wanting to serve crunchy salads may find that they benefit from louder music, whereas a restaurant that serves salty food could consider turning the background music down to reduce the need for additional sodium in their food,” he said.
The perfect track?
Further investigations are underway to try to find the reason behind the perceptions. One possibility is that the noise distorts the brain’s ability to gauge the other senses.
Unilever also plans to test whether the findings apply to music – which may one day allow it to suggest the perfect soundtrack to accompany a romantic ready meal.
Food Quality and Preference, In press
A.T. Woods, E. Poliakoff, D.M. Lloyd, J. Kuenzel, R. Hodson, H. Gonda, J. Batchelor, G.B. Dijksterhuis, A. Thomas