I recently discussed how food companies carefully formulate their products for mass consumption. One of the more important elements to making a food desirable is the so-called mouthfeel, the texture and the perception of that texture, good or bad.
I am aware of this phenomenon firsthand, because even though I am knowledgeable about what is and how it is not healthy to put in my body, I sometimes find myself at the mercy of a food. Certain types of chips can make me lose control, but I happen to also be a bit of a crackhead when it comes to anything gummy.
Gummies are a really great example of how mouthfeel is used in food manufacturing. There’s something about the tangy taste coupled with the chewy texture that could really set me off on a binge if I wasn’t careful.
In many cases, “mouthfeel” has no sinister connotation at all. It’s used in wine and beer tasting as just one of several descriptive factors when reviewing products. But it also describes how certain foods and drinks are a perfect match, because one is an astringent that makes you “pucker up” and the other is fatty or oily which resolves the dry feel now in your mouth and throat with its lubricating properties. Think red wine with steak or coffee and ice cream.
Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center say the rough feel of drinks like coffee or wine is balanced by fatty foods.
“The mouth is a magnificently sensitive [sensory] organ, arguably the most sensitive in the body,” says Paul Breslin of Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, who co-authored a mouthfeel study.
That’s just the start of it, and where the problem arises. While the natural pairings of coffee and ice cream balance each other, the human mouth has the sensitivity to detect ice crystals in ice cream that are about 40μm (microns). One micron is about 1/1000th of a millimeter.
If football is a game of inches, food science comes down to, well, microns. With billions of dollars on the line, you can rest assured food companies spend a lot of time, money, and energy making sure they get the “feel” of their foods just right.
Sensory testing is performed in many ways. Often lighting and the smells surrounding test subjects are tightly controlled. Sophisticated statistical analyses is gleaned, often only after weeks of pre-screening and training subjects for the process. The food texture is analyzed by machines called viscometers or rheometers.
Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found that with each sip of wine, or green tea, or coffee, the perception of astringency increased. Logically, one would have to increase the fatty food to counter it. You get where this is going?
Dr. David Kessler, who served as commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr., refers to foods designed this way as having hedonic value.
“The food industry understands how to construct and develop food for optimal sensory stimulation and pleasure. Hedonics involves five factors: anticipation, visual appeal, aroma, taste and flavor, and texture and mouthfeel.” says Dr. Kessler. “We now know that this involves activating certain parts of the brain.”
So, what does the food industry do when it is under increased pressure by public officials and a growing demand for low fat foods? Stay tuned for “part two” of this story coming soon.