Food is powerful. It can shut up a crying baby, spark a revolution, and even induce cannibalism.1 Indeed, since the first living organisms began wiggling around, life has been on a constant quest for its next meal. Whether the main course is sunlight, grass, or a Crunchwrap Supreme®, to live is to eat.2
Eating is also incredibly sensual—whilst enjoying a meal, we engage our senses of taste, smell, touch, and (more indirectly) vision and hearing.
Here’s a quick lesson on sensual science, presented by every mom’s favorite food-lover/scientist, Patrick “Mc
Dreamy Chicken” Dempsey:
Taste and Smell. Taste is our perception of chemicals in food; smell, our perception of chemicals in the air. We develop these intertwined senses while still in our mother’s womb and when it comes to eating, these two senses are the ultimate critics for a piece of food on its journey to our stomachs.
Touch. Touch is the stimulation of nerve receptors located in our bodies. For eating, the relevant receptors are located inside (and, if you’re a messy eater, around) the mouth. We usually define this sensation, in regards to eating, by talking about the texture of a food (think slimy, sticky, firm, soft).
Expanding the temporal scope of the eating process, we engage the senses of hearing and vision.
Hearing. Hearing is our perception of changes in air pressure. Think about the crunch of a cracker, the slurping of a soup, and (taking it a step further) the crinkle3 of a potato chip bag or the sizzle of a grill. By a very early age, we are conditioned to expect a meal upon our ears’ perception of certain vibrations.
Vision. Vision is our perception of light waves. It’s also the sense we rely on most in forming our (mis)conceptions of the world around us.4 Like hearing, vision is conditioned early in life. Since it’s our sense with the longest range, it’s usually the first sense triggered in the eating process.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the visual component of eating.
In modern times, image reproduction has provided for unprecedented dissociation of the visual component of eating from the rest of the eating experience. Simply put, with advancements in photography and video technologies, we are now, more easily than ever, able to visually enjoy food, without actually chewing and swallowing.
In this short clip, Randy Marsh eloquently demonstrates humanity’s appreciation for visual gastronomy.
With Instagram feeds and television shows, a drool-worthy experience is merely a click away. We love gawking at food so much that we are willing to “consume” anything even related to eating. It doesn’t need to be pretty (Guy Fieri) or tasteful (Paula Dean), for people to gobble it up.
Heck, the assholes at Fox figured out the recipe. Throw a handful of average joes in a kitchen with an angry British man, add some hair product and boom! Five million Americans will tune in on a Tuesday night to eye-fuck some chicken piccata glazed with Skittles.
Visual gastronomy, with its ability to make us salivate (despite our reasonable selves knowing damn well we aren’t going to get a bite of those buffalo wings) is, in a way, the ultimate cocktease. Cue the buffalo wings:
Feeling kinda like Pavlov’s dog yet?
Bottom line: We’re constantly being visually-fed, even when we aren’t actually eating.
This begs the question, what kind of effect could this be having on the “real” eating experience? Could the prevalence of digital chow-downs be diluting our satisfaction with food? A hundred years ago, when somebody saw food, there was a pretty high probability that they were on the verge of a meal. Today, chances are you’ll see (but not eat) five burgers in the next 24 hours. Could all these “false positives” be wreaking havoc on the neurological magic we experience during eating?
Studies have shown that “exposure to visual food cues like food ads can influence eating behavior and contribute to weight gain” … but is this “exposure” also making our food less tasty?
Hopefully, we’ve left you with something to chew on.
For another delicious post, check this out: Adiós to Being Vegetarian?