What Does Sweetness Sound Like?

Lab experiments show that we associate different sounds with different flavors, and that sounds influence how foods taste

Does what you are hearing affect how you taste?
Does what you are hearing affect how you taste? Image courtesy of Flickr user Sifu Renka

Charles Spence is multisensory researcher in London, who has been messing around with how sounds modify flavor. “We’ve shown that if you take something with competing flavors, something like bacon-and-egg ice cream, we were able to change people’s perception of the dominant flavor—is it bacon, or egg?—simply by playing sizzling bacon sounds or farmyard chicken noises.”

This might sound crazy, but the otherworldly ice cream makes one thing clear: The sound of food matters. So does the sound of the packaging and the atmospheric sounds we hear when we’re eating. We’re all synesthesiates when we sit down to dinner.

In another experiment, Anne-Sylvie Crisinel, a graduate student who works in the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, had volunteers match wines, milk and other foods with particular musical notes. A sweet-tasting dessert or something like lemon juice tended to be matched with a higher-pitched notes, whereas something savory or something with umami tended to be matched with brassy, low-pitched sound.

In one short communication, published this month in the journal Food Quality and Science, the researchers had 20 people sit in a darkened sound booth, wearing headphones. A soundtrack began playing at exactly 70 decibels.

Now, imagine you’re there. Imagine you put a small piece of a spongy toffee in your mouth. And listen to this soundtrack. (Headphones recommended!)

Now, take another piece of toffee but listen to this soundtrack when you eat it.

If you’re like the participants in the study, the second soundtrack—the one with higher pitches—made the toffee taste sweeter than the first “bitter” soundtrack. But the treats were exactly the same. It was the sound that tasted different.

Do we prime ourselves for sweetness when we hear the ice cream man’s familiar high tinkling jingles because of the legacy of soda fountains and the cross-sensory marketing genius (perhaps inadvertent) on the part of a crier who first wielded a set of bells? Or is it because of a deeper symbolism associated with the pitch of our voices? Either way, the association helps explain why ice cream trucks still stick to their sprightly high-pitched tunes. These atmospheric sounds really do play a role, creating an expectation that appears to sweeten the treats themselves.

The fourth in a series on sound and food. Read about jingles here, food truck tunes here, and the origins of noise ordinances here.  We’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming next week.

Audio courtesy of Scott King and Russ Jones of Condiment Junkie.

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