Sitting in a pub one night a dozen years ago, Charles Spence realized that he was in the presence of the ideal experimental model: the Pringles potato chip. Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, runs the Crossmodal Research Lab there, which studies how the brain integrates information from the five human senses to produce a coherent impression of reality. Very often, these modes of perception influence one another on the way to becoming conscious thought. For instance, scientists have long known that whether a strawberry tastes sweet or bland depends in no small part on the kinds of organic molecule detected by olfactory receptors in the nose… Within the small group of scientists interested in multisensory integration, the paper heralded a new direction for the field, a shift from teasing out the mechanics of audio-visual interaction to what Paul Breslin, an experimental psychologist at Rutgers University, described as “the new frontier” of oral perception. Outside the academy, the paper failed to generate any interest until 2008, when its authors were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition. The Ig Nobels are intended to “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then think.”
Each September, emissaries from some of the nation’s biggest food companies gather at Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, in New Brunswick, for a two-day crash course aimed at helping them decode the science of human taste. Attendees from brands like Nabisco and Chipotle, and from government agencies like the U.S.D.A., might learn to map the chemical flavor profile of apple juice in order to identify abnormalities by smell. They might create a vocabulary for the scent, sight, texture, and taste of toast, to create a common language with which to evaluate baked goods. And they might design a taste test to determine whether chocolate-chip-cookie consumers really prefer more chips per bite, or just like seeing the words “extra chocolate” on a label… Our first assignment was to learn how to “calibrate” our taste buds. Just as an orchestra gets in tune before each performance, professionals who are evaluating a food product should get on the same page with their terms. What, for example, qualifies as “salty” in a particular kind of cheese? What qualifies as “sweet”?… The most fun exercise – and the most useful one for an ordinary cheese lover – was the lesson on aromas.