Insects could be a plentiful food source if only we could get over our aversion to creepy crawlies. The problem for chefs, food companies and diners is how to make them look good on a plate.

In a research centre at the University of Oxford, a team of scientists are exploring ways to ‘hack’ our sense of taste. So far, they have figured out that the weight of cutlery can influence our enjoyment of food. They’ve also tricked people into sensing lemon on their tongue when, in fact, they’re only tasting water.

Charles Michel, chef-in-residence at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, has even deduced what makes the optimal burger. It should stand 7cm tall, contain nine specific layers and must be served in wrapping, rather than on a plate, with your favourite music playing in the background.

“Expectations play a much bigger part in our experiences than we think they do,” says Michel, a Franco-Colombian chef who previously worked at a three-Michelin-star restaurant. “Most of the time we believe we’re simply eating a certain thing when we’re actually encountering a psychological construct of that thing. Eating is never just about the physical properties of food.”

Relatively little is understood about how the brain combines our senses to form a flavour. What we do know is that sight and smell provide much of the input. Taste is considered the weakest of the senses – it can’t distinguish between apples and onions by itself, for example – which leaves it open to manipulation by a variety of stimuli, from the ambience of the surrounding area to the orientation of a plate.

 

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