To Hack…or Not to Hack: I Think That’s The Question

 “Nowadays, though, chefs, culinary artists, experience designers, and researchers working in technology are increasingly starting to hack our experiences of flavour: everything from sonically seasoning your food through to augmented and virtual reality dining experiences.”

Joining papers, Hacking Flavour Perception

How can we enjoy our food and drink better by harnessing all our senses more intelligently?

Last Monday I went to a workshop entitled, intriguingly and enticingly, ‘Hacking Flavour Perception: Art, Design, Technology and Gastrophysics’. Wild horses and all that, I had the opportunity to go, and I took it.

The workshop was devised and led by Professor Charles Spence, an academic whose Oxford University bio tells us his “research focuses on how a better understanding of the human mind will lead to the better design of multisensory foods, products, interfaces, and environments in the future.”  Improving food and the circumstances in which we enjoy it is a subject of intense interest to the hospitality and the food production industries, as well as the foodie clientele which they service. Small wonder then that the hall was packed, the atmosphere electric with anticipation.

The speaker line up – some of the best brains in ground-breaking food and drink research

It’s curious that, despite the planet-wide and growing fascination, Charles Spence is one of a very small, select band carrying out rigorous scientific study in this area, and a glance at the programme suggested that most of the rest of the band was already assembled on the speakers’ platform. Certainly they represented an impressively catholic selection: they came from far and wide in every sense; geographic location, academic approach and background, specialisation, and personal style.

But all were tackling the same big question: how can we enjoy our food and drink better by harnessing all our senses more intelligently?

Professor Spence’s introduction to the day was appropriately all-encompassing and raised the full pack of fascinating issues – moral, psychological, linguistic, philosophic, scientific, and technological – surrounding the pleasure we get from that most fundamental of activities, eating and drinking.

 ‘Some of the best brains in ground-breaking food and drink research…’


Food hacking – what does this term actually mean?

Professor Spence began by explaining the deliberate selection of the word ‘hacking’ in the title of his workshop.

As a professional writer I’d thought it was an interesting term to use. It’s an ambiguous word, lending itself to different interpretations. There are two sides to the hacking coin, and Spence was honest and clear about them both.

“There is the ‘bad’ side, the ‘wicked’ side, involving synthetic chemicals” he told us; and then there is the good side.

Hacking can be constructive when, for example, the eater can be duped into thinking he’s enjoying forbidden but delicious, addictive salty or sweet food which is, in fact, relatively good for him. How does this work in practice? Well, food manufacturers, Spence informed us, are experimenting now with sugar which ‘unfolds’ on the tongue – giving a bigger bang for its buck as it were. That makes sense to me – it’s not unlike the tactile effect of a Malden salt crystal (see my post Different Kinds of Salt).

Guide to salt
The tactile effect of a Maldon salt crystal

“There is the bad side, the wicked side……” he told us.

So far all of this fitted with my understanding of the word, ‘to hack’, as well as that of the Oxford English Dictionary (since Professor Spence is a Professor at Somerville College, Oxford, that seemed the right reference source to consult).

what is food hacking?

The essential question of authority

The question of authority in this definition is paramount. Perhaps we are happy to deceive our own taste buds consciously if we’re in danger of becoming diabetic. Few of us, however, would consent to be unknowingly deceived, to be forced unconsciously into conclusions and actions we would not otherwise have taken.

But most of the  ‘hacking’ techniques described by Professor Spence, or outlined by the other speakers later, were consensual. The definition of hacking in connection with food at least, needed to be stretched somewhat.

Broadening the definition – the hacker hacked!

In this respect Professor Spence found the musings of the American philosopher, Peter Ludlow, to be a helpful foundation. In The Stone, a philosophy forum, Ludlow describes a visit to a town in Germany where a friend’s wife had enveloped the barrel of a gun of a World War II tank in a colourful woolly jersey. The tank had been placed outside a former Nazi concentration camp for women. The woolly jersey mocked the macho symbolism of the gun, which the women of the town then deemed to have been ‘knit-hacked’.

“A friend’s wife had enveloped the gun in a woolly jersey….it was deemed to have been ‘knit-hacked'”

Ludlow explains the use of this term as follows:

“The intention here was clear: an attempt to defend the traditional, less sinister understanding of hacktivism and perhaps broaden it a bit, adding some positive affect to boot; more specifically, that hacking is fundamentally about refusing to be intimidated or cowed into submission by any technology, about understanding the technology and acquiring the power to repurpose it to our individual needs, and for the good of the many. Moreover, they were saying that a true hacktivist doesn’t favour new technology over old — what is critical is that the technologies be in our hands rather than out of our control. This ideal, theoretically, should extend to beyond computer use, to technologies for food production, shelter and clothing, and of course, to all the means we use to communicate with one another.”

Aha! So, in a Matrix-like reversal, the individual, the food hacktivist, takes control by rebelling against the traditions and culture which sub-consciously inform his perceptions. He is able to hack the system which has lulled him into unquestioning acceptance.

As Professor Spence explains, “we’ve all been told by our parents, ‘don’t play with your food’, but now it’s not just acceptable to play, it’s a creative, constructive approach being adopted by food professionals and renowned chefs from around the world”. And they’re doing this in a bid to wake up our tastebuds and get our noses twitching thoughtfully and appreciatively.

What does food hacking mean?
The film, The Matrix, depicts a dystopian future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually simulated.

There’s nothing very new about all this

However, the multisensory approach is not particularly revolutionary or new. In The Futurist Cookbook, the Italian poet and editor, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, writing in the 1930s, presented many of the concepts which we think of as cutting-edge today.

For example, Marinetti describes his concept of  ‘Aerofood’, an experience which involves the diner helping himself with the fingers (Marinetti eschewed knives and forks) of his right hand to some olives and fennel while at the same time repeatedly stroking with his left a tactile square made of sandpaper, silk and velvet. As the eater chewed he would be sprayed with the scent of carnations and he’d be listening to the sound of an aeroplane engine overlayed by a Bach cantata.

Futurist cooking
Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook wasn’t all that successful. His passionate disapproval of pasta might have had something to do with it….

‘….repeatedly stroking with his left a tactile square…..’

It’s a many-layered, modernistic, multi-sensory to match any conjured up at The Tickets Bar, Schloss Schauenstein, or The Fat Duck.

Surprise – in a good way – is what we’re all aspiring to

However, the key difference, Spence told us, is that there is nothing you’d want to taste in Marinetti’s book, whereas today’s chefs are aiming to delight and amaze. And in this they are not altogether altruistic. “Surprise”, comments Spence, “equals marketing success”.

‘Food hacking’, then, has come to mean ‘being playful and fun’ in order to encourage eaters to become more mindful of what they’re putting in their mouths, as well as to intensify their pleasure.

The three main approaches to food hacking

Spence identifies three means of achieving a ‘food hack’:

1. via the food itself

Take for example the humble carrot which started life purple but was genetically modified to become orange, perhaps as a way of honouring William of Orange (NB – this story is most likely apocryphal – follow this link for more on that).

food hacking
Originally, until ‘hacked’, carrots were purple.

2. via the mind and the taste buds

Food hacking can be constitutive (an integral part of the tasting process). For example, if a liquid is ‘fizzy’ this characteristic contributes to the flavour.  Another example is the extraordinary effect of ‘miracle fruit’ (Synsepalum dulcificum, a berry), which when eaten causes sour food – such as lemons – to taste sweet. Ordinary toothpaste can achieve the reverse effect, changing the flavour of orange juice from nice to nasty.

food hacking
Miracle berries make any sour fruit eaten subsequently taste sweet.

Then there are the incredible Electric Flowers (Acmella Oleracea). Eating them results in a tingling sensation, a numbness and increased salivation on the tongue. The effect is, apparently, like eating a nine volt battery, only, sort of, nice.

‘The effect is like eating a nine-volt battery, only, sort of, nice.’

Not to be forgotten is the contribution made by the nose –  ‘the ventriloquist in our mouth’ as Spence describes it. Many of the flavours we think we taste on our tongue are actually registered in the nose – fruity, creamy, burnt, among others. The nose can be easily ‘tricked’, he points out, for example by Heston Blumenthal, when he spritzes vinegar over his guests’ fish and chips.

And there is a further philosophic consideration. Where does flavour actually exist, where does it reside? Is it on the tongue, or is flavour a brain construct? This is a field of study where more questions are raised than answers reached.

Electric flowers - like eating a nine volt battery
Electric flowers – like eating a nine volt battery.

3. Via the environment

Food hacking can also be modulatory (affecting or adapting but not direct) – for example by the use of music or lighting. A number of the speakers later spoke more specifically on these techniques.

food hacking
Would the violin music make the coffee taste better…. or worse?

Professor Spence summarised, saying that the purpose of the workshop was to give leading researchers in the field a platform to describe their experiences: everything is being tried – from sonic seasoning to virtual reality dining experiences. The audience was to be treated to all that was the weird and wonderful in the world of cutting-edge food and drink, and we were not disappointed.

This post is dedicated to Charles Spence, who commented on reading it, “…perfect, couldn’t have summarised it better myself”.


The other presentations made at the workshop

The stellar line up for the rest of the day included:

  • Professor Katsunori Okajima, from Yokohama University who talked about how our sense of taste can be duped by what we see
  • Dr Sebastian Ahnert, from Cambridge University, presenting research done into the science of optimum food and drink pairing
  • Steve Keller, of iV Audio Branding, who talked about how sound can affect the taste experienceFollow this link for an account of that.
  • Dr Vaiva Kalnikaitė, of Nu Food, Cambridge who describes the difficulties of encapsulating liquid food into a solid form, and the kitchen robot 3D printer her company has designed to solve the problem.
  • Jesse Durnford Wood, chef-patron of Parlour restaurant in London, who uses theatre to achieve memorable dining experiences
  • Professor Francis McGlone, of Liverpool John Moores University, who spoke about the role the brain plays in the perception of flavour, specifically about tasters and super-tasters, or more accurately super-feelers.
  • Professor Charles Spence who returned to the lectern to talk about the use of different types of utensils; how Château Margaux can be developed in a lab; and how big businesses are using aroma to entice us to buy
  • Jozef Youssef, who describes how, as a chef, he is developing dishes based on scientific research, and how his company, Kitchen Theory is using gastrophysics to help ‘nudge guests towards an appreciation of more sustainable sources of food’

Other links on Saucy Dressings you might find interesting:

For more on Jozef Youssef and synaesthesia follow this link.

For a description of the Soundscapes exhibition at The National Gallery, and the food that it conjured up, follow this link.

For an example of Foodhacking which is a couple of millennia old, follow this link.

For a do-it-yourself multisensory meal, follow this link, to find cowboy films, cowboy music, and cowboy food.

For posts with accompanying music to inspire your cooking follow this link.

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