All in the best possible taste, an Ig Nobel approach to food

This item first appeared in 2008

Event review: Len Fisher provides some entertaining food for thought

On 15 May 2008, the Cambridge and Great Eastern Regional Group held an interesting and highly entertaining lecture on the Science of Food and Flavour. Speaker Dr Len Fisher from the University of Bristol (pictured, with apple) is one of very few scientists to have won an ‘Ig Nobel prize’ for work that could or should never be repeated. Dr Fisher won his prize for work done on the science behind dunking a biscuit. He is also credited with inventing flammable jelly and with deducing the optimum width of cheese in a sandwich.

The audience was treated to a selection of food stuffs to taste throughout the lecture. Examples included Polo mints – have you ever wondered why cold water tastes cooler after eating a mint? Or why red wine tastes smoother if you eat something salty before drinking it? The answers to these and other questions were presented to the enthralled audience.

Other experiments that you could try at home include eating dark chocolate followed by tonic water and then eating more chocolate. The theory goes that the bitter receptacles in your mouth become overloaded after the tonic water, rendering the overarching bitter taste in dark chocolate defunct. This means that all that is sensed is the texture of the chocolate; an oddly unpleasant experience, not dissimilar to eating a candle! Aside from the practical elements of the lecture, Dr Fisher presented some very interesting facts about food science. He believes that in food science we are somewhere between Galileo and Newton in our understanding. Very little is known as to why things taste as they do and why certain things affect our taste and smell. Aside from pH level, flavour intensity, and food quantity, the brain can also affect taste, he observed.

If you chew gum for long enough, the flavour appears to fade. Scientists at the University of Nottingham attached a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine to monitor an individual’s exhaling breath. The detected compounds from this experiment suggested that even after the individual felt the flavour had dissipated, the level of flavour given out from the gum remained the same. This indicated that the gum had not actually lost flavour, the brain had just stopped detecting it. Oddly, the flavour can be restored through drinking a glass of sugary water. In a packed lecture theatre, this talk captivated the audience with truly fascinating information, interspersed with humour and hands-on science.

David Cosway,
SCI Membership Communications on behalf of SCI Cambridge and Great Eastern Regional Group

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