Gastrophysics (Book Review)

by Sam Bilton on May 5, 2017 No comments

What is the essence of the book?

Professor Charles Spence defines ‘gastrophysics’ as “the scientific study of those factors that influence our multi sensory experience while tasting food and drink.” His book of the same title is a down to earth exploration of the science behind how we eat. So this book covers things like how the shape and colour of plates can affect our perception of food to why 27% of the drinks bought on aeroplanes are tomato juice.

About the author

As you expect from a professor, Spence has an impressive CV. He has an internationally respected expert in multi sensory perception and experience design providing consultancy for the likes of Unilever and Nestle (but don’t hold that against him). He is the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University and can count on Heston Blumenthal, with whom he has worked with extensively, as one of his biggest advocates.

Who will like it?

If a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking graces your bookshelf then Gastrophysics will be right up your street. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who is curious as to why Heston serves his ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish at The Fat Duck with an iPod. In which case you really ought to read this book.

Who won’t like it?

At the end of his introduction Spence does touch on the fact that some people, including Michelin starred chefs like Michael Caines, dismiss gastrophyics as ‘sensory trickery’. Good food, cooked well, should speak for itself. So if you agree there is no place for science in the kitchen or that your perception of the food can be altered by the weight of the cutlery used to eat it with or the ambience of the place that it is eaten in then you are unlikely to find this book appealing.

What do I like about the book?

Whilst I agree to some extent with the gastrophysics naysayers about good food I am truly fascinated by how external factors (and some internal ones) can unconsciously affect how we experience meals (and yes, I do own a copy of McGee’s book). Unlike some academic texts, which can be very dry, Spence’s work is more chatty and informal than lecturing. It really is a genuinely thought provoking text. So, when Spence asks “What would you say was your most perfect meal?” as predicted by the author I struggled to recollect exactly what I ate and why I liked it so much. It’s packed full of interesting (and sometimes disturbing) revelations too like super tasters potentially having psychopathic tendencies!

Is there anything I’m not so keen on?

As intrigued as I am by gastrophysics and as well written as this book is I found it easier to delve into it a chapter as a time (and not necessarily on a daily basis). There is a lot to digest here, which is more of an observation than a dislike. My method of reading a chapter and then returning to the book a few days later helped me understand the subject better, not being particularly scientifically minded. However, your experience may be different to mine.

Where can you buy it?

Gastrohysics: The New Science of Eating by Charles Spence (Penguin/Viking, £16.99)

Sam BiltonGastrophysics (Book Review)

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