Texture can influence flavour in a very concrete way. It affects how food is broken down in the mouth and therefore how the flavour molecules are released onto the tongue and its sensors.
Yet it can also change flavour more subtly by playing with our sensory perceptions, according to multisensory specialist and CEO of W20 Food Innovation Alex Woo.
“What we call ‘texture’ in food science is likely ‘touch’, or oral somato-sensation, in neuroscience,” he said. “Touch's mechano-reception component
includes pressure, viscosity and vibration. Cross-modal integration studies in recent years have demonstrated that touch enhances taste and smell in foods.
"For example, a potato chip that was crispier (touch) was perceived to have more flavour (taste and smell). Touching smooth surface like silk while tasting made another food seemed sweeter.”
Pushing the limits
Food manufacturers can play with these textural attributes to create new products but there are limits.
Fine diners may be willing to experiment with strange taste, texture and touch combinations as part of a one-off meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant but perhaps less so for food manufacturers looking to develop products that are potentially bought again and again.
Consumers associate specific textures with certain foods and these ideas are often strongly entrenched; they expect cookies to be dry and crumbly not soft and moist. Foods that do not conform to these ideas could at best be seen as a gimmick or, at worst, evoke disgust.
Yet there are ways new product developers can minimise this risk while experimenting with innovative textures, according to Woo.
“Taste, smell and touch integration is ‘safer’ to create if it is congruent, coming together in our brain through prior association,” he told FoodNavigator. “However, an incongruent combination can be inspiring if it surprises and delights.”
Texture and naturalness
The clean-label trend and desire for natural food is also pushing the boundaries of what consumers are willing to accept in terms of texture, with incongruous - yet apparently delightful for some – results.
Hydrocolloids such as acacia gum or guar gum are used by manufacturers of plant-based beverages to mimic the texture and creaminess of dairy products.
However, technology manager of beverages at hydrocolloid supplier TIC Gums, Dan Grazaitis, has said that consumers’ ever-growing demand for natural and clean-label products has led some manufacturers to formulate these ingredients out, with the result that some plant-based dairy products are sold with a curdled texture.
“When dairy milk gets old it curdles and that’s bad and you’re told from a kid to not drink that. Plant-based milk without the stabilisers in there will do the same thing, it will curdle. For some companies, separation is natural and [they] are saying ‘Just shake it and drink it’ but mentally it’s still hard to overcome that separation,” he said.
Texture and satiety
Researchers at the University of Sussex found that texture can change how filling the food or drink is – regardless of the calorie-count.
“Hunger and fullness are complicated issues because it is not just the calories in a food or drink that make it filling,” said lead researcher Keri McCrickerd. “Signals from the stomach are important but so too is how the drink feels in the mouth.”
“In our study both creamy flavour and texture affected expected fullness, but only thickness seemed to affect whether hunger was expected to be satisfied.”