Listen up audiologists! Your responsibilities just increased to include nutrition for one and all. When children refuse to eat their vegetables at dinner time, parents will be looking to you. When courting couples want to impress their partners about the choice of restaurant or their culinary skills during a quiet evening in, they will be looking to you. When caregivers want to ensure that the elderly under their care eat the right portions of the right kinds of food to sustain themselves, they are going to look to you. Like it or not, it is now your responsibility that all of humankind eat the right things and enjoy themselves to the fullest while doing so. Why, how, when, how come, really—you ask? It turns out that how something tastes depends on how it sounds when you eat it.
A brave scientific duo set out to ask how the sound of a bite influences the taste you perceive (Zampini and Spence, 2004). In the ivy-covered towers of Oxford University, they built an experimental set up to answer this question. Participants would be allowed to bite into a potato chip just once. The sound of the bite would be recorded using a microphone, altered digitally, and played back to the participant in real time. So the participant would bite into the real chip but hear the fake sound of the bite. Then based on the gastronomical and auditory experience the participant would rate the chip to be more or less crisp and more or less fresh on 100-point scales. Bite, experience, rate—repeat. Participants repeated this sequence many times. And here in lies the genius, the chip was always the same, but the sound they heard was different each time.
Yes, the sound of the bite influenced the participants’ ratings of the freshness and crispness of the chips. When the spectrum above 2 kHz was boosted, the chips tasted fresher and crisper. When the overall level of the signal was attenuated, the chips tasted less fresh and crisp. So there we have it, we now have the power to alter how people feel about food just by altering the sound of each bite. Clearly then, every time you fit a hearing aid, you have the added responsibility of adjusting the output to make food taste better. Better still, you could imagine new memory settings on hearing aids, now appropriately called fruits, fish, and steak, rather than the staid music, restaurant, and outdoors.
Crunch, crackle, pop—sound bytes anyone?
Zampini M, Spence C. (2004). The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips. Journal of Sensory Studies (19):347–363.