More a Matter of Nurturing than Controlling

Nina Langen and Jan-Peter Voß on exploring taste, freely creative autogustographies, a fun and pleasurable approach to designing sustainable nutrition as well as the possibilities and limits of citizen science

Professor Langen, Professor Voß, your research project "Taste!" was all about finding out what exactly taste is. Were you able to answer this question after three years of research?

Jan-Peter Voß: Our research shows that taste is not a mechanical process where specific influencing factors result in clearly determined results. Rather, it is a complex interplay of thousands of factors in very specific situations. This is one of the findings to emerge from the autogustographies devised by our 25 citizen scientists as an attempt to define what taste is for them. We learned that the spectrum of factors influencing taste ranges from how something is perceived by our mouths and the memory of a smell from childhood through to our emotional state and the people we are dining with. To put it simply, the sensual experience of eating is not determined purely by the amount of sugar food contains, or how it looks, or the atmosphere, or our personalities. Taste as a multilayered feeling of desire, curiosity, surprise, or comfort on the one hand and boredom, rejection, caution, or threat on the other should be understood as the result of the ecological interplay of various different aspects. It is like the blooming or withering of a garden. If we wish to understand and learn how to design aesthetic experiences, I believe we need to get away from the idea of a mechanical process complete with levers and adjusting screws. 

Nina Langen: Let's take the example of an experiment conducted by my research group at Long Night of the Sciences 2019. We asked our visitors what they associated with sweet flavors: a circle, a rectangle, or a quarter circle. They responded that a quarter circle tasted sweetest to them. So we can see that shapes also influence how we perceive taste. This is just one example of the many relevant aesthetic dimensions of food. This is interesting because so far nutrition, particularly sustainable nutrition, has been mainly regarded in economic, ecological, social, and health terms. Up until now there has been far too little research into sensual perception, which after all plays a very important role in what people choose to eat.

Jan-Peter Voß: ...and this in turn leads to completely different strategies. If we are going to treat seriously the idea that food is strongly connected with our feelings, then there is little sense in constantly regulating against these feelings. It makes much more sense to work with our sensual experience of eating. When eating, people should not be seen as machinery with moving parts or as computers conducting calculations. We need to look for completely different approaches if we wish to change people's eating habits, for example reducing the amount of meat they consume. It is more a question of stimulation and enabling, of experimenting with the makeup of situations than providing information and incentives or imposing bans. More a matter of nurturing than controlling

Nina Langen: During Long Night of the Sciences back in 2019, we also provided our visitors with different options for describing taste: They could choose between color, shape, purely verbal descriptions, or thinking up a story. Everyone could decide for themselves which of these options seemed most appropriate to them. What we discovered was that people need the right method to be able to describe taste for them. The scales that are often used for describing taste are not really suitable at all for an effective and undistorted representation of our individual perception of taste. Such scales may be standardizable and able to provide comparatively simple methods of evaluation, but they are not necessarily suitable for providing information about the best ways to achieve sustainable nutrition. We need to keep thinking about what the best tools are and to test them in the field using different methods.

I still don't see how focusing on the aesthetic and sensual experience of eating can reduce our consumption of meat, which we need to as some 13 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to cattle farming. If we don't reduce our consumption of meat, particularly in the global North, we will never achieve the EU's goal of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050.

Jan-Peter Voß: The autogustographies of our citizen scientists and the experiments involving more than 1000 visitors at the Museum für Naturkunde in 2020 show that taste is something we can change. We need to learn that our taste is more complex and variable than we experience it to be when we eat the same way all the time. In essence it is a matter of cultivating a practice of awareness, of playful discovery, and independent judgement. We can only achieve this through stimulation, by trying things out and experience, and not through regulation. One of the discoveries of the “Taste!” project is that we have to strengthen this approach to achieve sustainable nutrition. We have to create our own taste rather than allow this to be dictated to us by food companies and sustainability and health experts or else use our own biographies to guide us. The approach we pursued in our project can be described as follows: We want to encourage people to create their own taste by experimenting with the elements of their eating scenarios. We want to place the emphasis on desire and curiosity, to create new ways of tasting, new dishes and dining scenarios using regional and seasonal products, or to experiment with leftovers, and thus leave behind well-trodden paths and explore new ones.

Can you describe the method of gustography you developed in the “Taste!" project to explore the complexity of taste?

Jan-Peter Voß: All our 25 citizen scientists were asked to observe and document their taste in everyday situations of their choice. From a scientific perspective, there were almost no specifications from our side. This is how our freely creative autogustographies came into being. We then analyzed these working with our citizen scientists. What we saw was that descriptions of taste focus on sensory aspects, how something tastes, associations, in other words the memories which food recalls, exactly what is eaten and how, as well as the environment, in other words everything and everyone who is present and contributes to the atmosphere. In a second phase, we conducted analytical-disciplined gustographies, meaning that we developed guidelines for observing taste focusing on one specific aspect.

And what did this comparison between freely creative autogustographies and analytically disciplined gustographies reveal?

Jan-Peter Voß: Controlled observation resulted in a very different taste. It could no longer develop freely. Focused testing resulted in a new, artificial taste. This is interesting because it means that we cannot observe and understand taste properly if we try to reproduce it using specific methodological frameworks "locked in" in a lab. We end up with something different to what occurs in everyday reality.

"Taste!" was a citizen science project involving 25 lay researchers. Is citizen science the right approach for such a complex issue as taste?

Nina Langen: It is, yes. Citizen science is a wonderful format for generating knowledge in society. Without citizen science it would be impossible to find out about certain aspects, such as the experience of taste when dining with close friends, on special occasions, or in everyday situations. Bringing science and members of the public together, in other words citizen science, is ideal for research into nutrition as we all eat and taste every day.

Jan-Peter Voß: I would even go so far to say that citizen science is actually better equipped to deal with complexity than research conducted by professional scientists, simply because the latter tends to separate out reality more and more in order to establish ever new, theoretically possible patterns of order in ever more specific and artificial areas. The complexity and intricacy of reality is rather anathema to today's professional researchers. Amateur researchers by contrast are often able to engage in a much more unbiased, curious, and comprehensive way with the concentrated complexity of reality, which is something we also have to deal with constantly in our everyday lives.

Do you think citizen science also has its limits?

Nina Langen: We used citizen science in a very sophisticated way in "Taste!" We didn't ask our citizen scientists to answer monoscaled questions or use them to simply gather data. We also involved them in developing the methodologies of gustography and the participative “Taste!” exhibition at the Museum für Naturkunde as well as in analyzing the data that was obtained. This is a very elaborate method of knowledge production for a project limited to three years. Every researcher has to ask themselves if such an elaborate research project is beneficial for them at a certain stage of their career, particularly if the results cannot be easily quantified to the extent of saying that this specific measure leads to this particular result or a specific saving in CO2 - the kind of accurately measurable statements that third-party funding organizations are looking for. "Taste!" involved too much admin for both sides; just consider the amount of work needed to invoice and process invoices for citizen scientists’ work. I believe we need to discuss the option of employing citizen scientists on a part-time basis for the duration of a project. 

Jan-Peter Voß: How intensively and competently citizen scientists are able to contribute to the research process and thus the extent they can be treated on an equal footing with professional researchers depends largely on the time they have available. If they can only contribute a couple of hours of their free time each week, we cannot really expect them to think about the design and the methodology of the project. If we really want to see the kind of intensive collaboration where citizen scientists are not there just to implement ideas developed by professional researchers, then we have to provide them with more resources. Unless of course you only want to work with people of independent means that is.

Professor Langen, you said that when you started out in "Taste!" in 2018 you had to break with normal methods of research as you did not know which path the project would take or the methods needed to access knowledge. What conclusions can you draw from your experiments with citizen science for future research projects?

Nina Langen: Among all the transdisciplinary and participative projects I have conducted thus far, this was for me the most open. It is not possible to compare it with other research projects. A citizen science project like "Taste!" requires very different resources than, say, a living lab or a straightforward consumer survey. Some of our citizen scientists left the project over the three years and we don't know why despite asking - did it take up too much of their time or did they become frustrated. It really bothers me not knowing. Ultimately, these are people who are open to science and research and if they give up out of a sense of frustration, because being involved as a researcher has ceased to be fun, then word will get around about this too. I took a very spontaneous decision to get involved in this type of extremely open citizen science project. I probably wouldn't do so again without first resolving the question of resources in advance.

And you, Professor Voß?

Jan-Peter Voß: My problem with citizen science is that it is in many respects much, much more complicated than working with fellow researchers from my own discipline, who have been shaped by the academic system and who think and function the same way as I do. From a project management perspective, citizen science projects are also an imposition because the work they involve is not reflected in the available budget. As a researcher, you might find yourself spending your 60-hour week at night washing 300 glasses after conducting an experiment with the public, rather than writing a scientific article or developing contacts in your professional community. From the perspective of career planning, it's a waste of time.  So I always find myself cursing at the end of a citizen science project. Sooner or later, however, the desire and curiosity to get involved again gets the upper hand.


Interview: Sybille Nitsche