The sound and texture of food often have as much to do with the enjoyment of eating as the taste; and, often, the way with which we enjoy food is culturally determined. While we would venture to say that universally, everyone wants to get that last bit out of the milkshake container, and while slurping soup in Shanghai is encouraged, slurping your tea in Kensington is very much frowned upon.
When noise = satisfaction
There is no denying that sinking your teeth into an apple and not being met with a satisfying crunch is as disappointing as awaiting that first morning coffee only to find the barista still had training wheels and the coffee was scalded, weak, bitter, cold (or all of the above). Truly first world problems, but our expectation is that food will look, taste and sound as we expect. When all of our senses are not delighted, we are disappointed. But the noise of food is something that also has deep roots in cultural acceptance. It is generally accepted that the sounds of consumption (slurping, belching, chewing) are indicators of a meal being enjoyed and appreciated in China; in Japan the opposite applies – it is considered bad manners to blow your nose, audibly munch or make any other digestion related noise; and, according to the blogger, Wild Junket, nothing rounds off a meal and shows appreciation to a host more than a loud burp in Egypt. There is a downside to these noises of satisfaction, however, as for a percentage of the population these sounds are associated with the triggering of an, at-times, crippling psychological response.
This response has a name – misophonia- which is a disorder that is associated with altered brain activity in response to certain sounds or stimuli. While not a great deal is currently understood about the condition (including what causes it), there is an increasing body of evidence that supports sufferers in understanding their condition is ‘real’ and is something that cannot easily be controlled by the sufferer. The symptoms include extreme anxiety or even rage and physiological responses such as increased heart rate and sweating. A recent report in Time reported that “…scientists said scans of misphonia sufferers found changes in brain activity when a ‘trigger’ sound was heard. Brain imaging revealed that people with the condition have an abnormality in their emotional control mechanism which causes their brains to go into overdrive on hearing trigger sounds”.
In the background
It is not just the ‘personal’ noises of eating that can have an impact on our food experiences. The noise at the place where we are consuming has an impact too. Kate Wagner, in her article in The Atlantic, succinctly points out that “Restaurants are so loud because architects don’t design them to be quiet. Much of this shift in design boils down to changing conceptions of what makes a space seem upscale or luxurious”. Wagner reported on visiting a number of eating establishments where the background noise hovered between 70 and above 85 decibels (85 decibels being harmful to human hearing); with the sounds of comfort for many (the coffee grinder and espresso machine) adding to the melee.
An interesting piece of research, published by Charles Spence in the Journal, Flavor found that background noise is both a common complaint amongst restaurant-goers and something that actually impacts on how we enjoy food: “Taken together, the evidence now clearly demonstrates that both background noise and loud music can impair our ability to taste food and drink. It would appear that noise selectively impairs the ability to detect tastes such as sweet and sour while leaving certain other taste and flavour experiences relatively unaffected”.
Food: sound and safe
Given the cultural differences in how we physically eat, the potential reaction of some to food noises, the risk to our hearing from food premises and the impact that noise has on our ability to taste and enjoy food, it would certainly seem that the link between our senses and enjoying food goes beyond taste, smell and texture. As with inflight food where certain flavour profiles have to be enhanced to counter the effect of altitude on taste (see our blog on Air(plain) food) it will be interesting to watch developments of food in relation to sound. It is most likely that progress will occur in the form or architectural interventions – designing eating spaces that encourage enjoyment of food over the aesthetics of the premises. For those suffering from misophonia, however, there is likely to be little shift in cultural appreciation of food, so it is possibly best to avoid dinner in Cairo or a banquet in Beijing.