Discover the four ways your body experiences food without ambient noise.
The next time you encounter an awkward silence at a family dinner or during a first date lunch, embrace it. According to eating behavior research, the lack of conversation, music or other noise could change how your body reacts to eating.
The absence of sound while you’re stuffing your face appears to heighten other sensations in your body, which could change how you experience your food and, possibly, your relationship with it. Eating in silence affects your body’s reaction to food in four main ways.
You eat a lot less
“Our brains keep track of the amount of food sensations that occur,” says Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford in England. “When there is no noise, eating becomes more tactical; and there is more smell sensation, because the auditory sensation of noise isn’t overloading the brain — it is able to attend to the task of eating.” And since there is less distraction, the satiety signals that your stomach sends to your brain are actually heard.
In addition, some people have reported that they eat less when eating in silence because they become self-conscious of the act of eating itself. Spence says that some of the effects of silent eating have as much to do with the dining environment. “Dining alone or with someone, dining in private or in public, these are all things that will affect how and how much you eat, whether in silence or not.”
Either way, silent eating might help you consume less, whether it is because you’re consciously more aware that you are eating and therefore stop sooner or because your body is more aware of the sensation of eating since it isn’t dulled by noise.
You can hear your food
“Food makes noise,” remarks Spence, who is also the author of the forthcoming book “Gastrophysics.” “We don’t concentrate on it. It’s crunchy, crackly, crispy, carbonated, squeaky, etc., which corresponds to mouth-feel, but they are also sound driven.” He points out that food noise is heard externally and internally, so you really can’t get around it — especially when you are eating in silence.
What’s more, “foods that are noisy seem to retain their flavor longer,” he says. “Noisy foods are perceived to have desirable characteristics, such as being fresher. Noise is a sign that foods are more nutritious.”
Your food tastes different
“Sound is the forgotten flavor sense,” Spence claims. In a 2012 scientific review on how noise affects the way people perceive flavor published in the journal Physiology & Behavior, he wrote that research clearly demonstrates that what you hear — whether it is the sound of food, the sound of the packaging, the sound of the food being prepared, or the sound of the environment where you are eating and drinking — can exert a profound role in your eating behavior, not to mention on your flavor perception.
“There is a masking of taste when noise is loud,” he says. Numerous studies have looked at the effects of loud restaurants on the taste of food and found that both background noise and loud music can impair the ability to taste food and drink. In silence, your brain is able to pay attention to the flavors that your taste buds are coming in contact with, so you may experience flavors more intensely than if you were to eat the same dish while talking to a friend or in a loud room.
But even if you eat in silence, Spence brings up another point about how noise affects the taste of food. As alluded to earlier when discussing the sound of food, noisy foods tend to be seen as desirable, and this may be one reason why snack foods are popular, says Spence. The sound of the packaging of foods like chips mimics the sound of crisp and fresh foods.
Also, the sound of preparation plays a role in how we taste food and drink. If you think about going to a juice bar or a coffee shop, or even if you’re making juice or coffee in your kitchen, the noise of the machines used to create those beverages can affect the expectations you have and hence the taste of your beverage, according to Spence.
Automatically, you’re eating mindfully
Eating mindfully has been a to-do for a while. You probably know the tips by heart: Chew your food more, roll the food around in your mouth, study your food on your plate, etc. When you eat in silence, you can’t help but eat mindfully, Spence says. As mentioned before, without sound to distract the other senses involved in eating, as well as to distract you from the act of eating, you experience the taste, feel and smell of your food and your brain is able to regulate how much you eat.
Basically, if you’re trying to enhance your relationship with food and how you eat it, turning off the world and dining in silence may be the easiest, no-brainer way to do so.
Sonic Seasoning Your Food
Silence isn’t the only flavor enhancer; research is uncovering that certain sounds can selectively increase food’s flavor too. Even though a loud restaurant may be the bane of many diners’ experiences, chefs are collaborating with scientists to create music menus that enhance the flavors of their cuisine. Charles Spence, PhD, author of the forthcoming book “Gastrophysics,” says that high-pitched sounds have been associated with better enjoying sweet foods, while lower-pitched sounds are associated with bitter or sour flavors. Also, together with one world-famous chef, Spence found that sounds of the sea make seafood taste better.
How can sounds help improve the taste of food? What’s going on in the brain? “I have no idea,” Spence says. However, the key is to making these musical menus work is to make sure that the volume isn’t too loud, since research also finds that soft background music doesn’t impede eating attention. Other ways noise, especially music, affects eating is by influencing how fast you eat. “The faster the music’s pace, the faster people eat. The slower the music, the slower people eat,” Spence reveals. Definitely something to think about the next time you’re dining out.
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