How food feels in our mouth is just as important as how it tastes, looks and smells.
Understanding how food feels in the mouth is key to deciding whether we like or dislike different ingredients. When these ingredients are put together to create a dish, you may react differently depending on the combination.
Here’s how we at the National Geographic believes it works: when food enters the mouth, single neurons in the brain will each react uniquely to the different combinations of taste, oral texture, temperature, olfactory (smell) and visual inputs to encode different flavours in the brain regions such as the orbitofrontal cortex. As each person has a primary and a secondary cortex, neurons in the primary taste cortex have these taste and oral texture responses but are little affected by olfactory stimuli, or by the sight of food. This signals that while we may ‘eat with our eyes’ the determining factor of what we like and dislike is down to how food feels and tastes in the mouth.
Now, some people can enjoy the look, taste and smell of food, but be immediately put off once it enters the mouth alone – and this is an important example of how texture impacts the pleasantness of a meal. This starts from an early age, Nutritionist Charlotte Newman has 10 years’ experience in developing school meals ‘if you’re exposed over 11 times [to certain foods] as a child, you like it. It’s like a learned behaviour.’ This helps children get used to certain foods, its texture and flavours and noticing if it’s not on the plate.
This then carries into adulthood and influences our choice of diet. One study published in 2020 by Food Quality and Preference found that oat biscuits with a visibly pronounced texture were perceived as healthier and, therefore, less desirable. The preconception we hold of foods shows that texture doesn’t work alone, but requires the use of all other senses for us to understand how a food will feel.
Take the humble mushroom – it’s a vegetable with vast health benefits including supporting gut and heart health, while also being one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin D. However, a study by Robert Pellegrino and Curtis R. Luckett, members of the Department of Food Science at the University of Tennessee, found that cooked mushrooms are the least pleasant food, due to its slimy and rubbery texture.
But this disgust to certain textures can also be seen as a psychological one because the same textures can be applied to other foods and be enjoyed. Let’s take onions. In the same study, it was found that the sliminess of an onion was liked more than if it were crunchy.
When it comes to a professional setting, texture is one of the primary considerations for menu creation. Kevin Macey, Executive Chef for catering company Bartlett Mitchell has 10-15 years’ experience in contract catering ‘as we write the menu each dish needs to fit in a certain criteria. Is it seasonal? Is it what the customers want? But then when we break it down, we look at does it have texture? Does it have colour? Is there enough acidity? All of these elements are applied in menu writing.’ This means that without considering all senses, the final product will never meet certain standards.
Some might argue that taste is more influential than texture, but these two elements work extremely closely together. Yet, Macey who participated in a cooking experiment in Holland, answered the question – what makes the perfect dish? ‘If we look at texture, umami, we look at fat, the creaminess, acidity, and if we apply all of these things to every dish each time, you will always create a perfect dish because it’s in harmony.’
So what happens if we don’t have our other senses to support texture? It’s hard to ignore the influence texture plays on food, especially during the pandemic where individuals with COVID-19 would lose their smell and taste. Lauren Cunningham, who caught COVID-19 in March 2020, found that just texture in foods massively affected the pleasantness of what she was eating, ‘it was just really boring. Yeah, obviously I couldn’t taste anything at all. So basically, it was just like mush in your mouth with absolutely no flavour at all.’ Nothing is more multi-sensory than eating and learning the huge difference between textures we find pleasant and unpleasant will help us expand our palate. Notice the fur on a peach or the crunch of a crisp, for a human who does not engage in all their senses is like looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses.