It’s the Situation that Creates the Taste

A new ‘gustographic’ method seeks to get to the bottom of our sense of taste

What exactly is the nature of tasting? How do we experience it? Who better qualified to answer this question than those actually doing the tasting – and doing it right there where it’s happening in a variety of everyday situations? “In order to tap into this expertise,” says Professor Dr. Jan-Peter Voß, “we need a citizen science approach where professional and amateur researchers work together”.

Memories, descriptions, reflections

Together with Professor Dr. Nina Langen, Voß heads the “Schmeck!” (“Taste!”) project, which aims to investigate how the act of tasting works and how our tastes can be changed. Together a team of 20 amateur researchers, they started by setting themselves the task of observing and describing their own tasting experiences in a self-chosen situation. “We call these self-descriptions of the tasting experience ‘auto-gustographic reports’,” says Voß. “And we noticed something: Not one of the participants limited the description of their tasting experiences merely to sweet, salty, sour and so on. On the contrary, what came to the surface were such diverse issues as health concerns, uncertainties about how to behave when visiting a fine dining restaurant, memories of their granny’s garden, the crunch associated with chewing, descriptions of the atmosphere or reflections on whether it’s still acceptable to eat meat.” A purely physiological concept of taste leaves no room for such perceptions. But when people are free to describe how they experience a taste, these perceptions emerge as relevant elements.

More than the mere stimulation of taste receptors

From the analysis of these auto-gustographic reports, the Schmeck! team developed four categories which – notwithstanding different intensities and combinations – seem to be central: sensors, practice, associations and environment. The team has concluded from this that not only the food itself, or the person eating it, creates the taste, but that the entire situation matters. And that this is determined by the interaction of very different elements. As a real experience in everyday life, the tasting process is therefore much more complex than the mere stimulation of taste receptors in the tongue.

Like an ecosystem

What also emerges from this is the marked fragility of taste. As soon as one element in the tasting situation changes, the tasting experience changes too. “Tasting,” says Jan-Peter Voß of the Chair of Sociology of Politics and Governance at TU Berlin, “is the result of interactions. It’s like an ecosystem. Each element – for example the music playing while we dine in a restaurant – contributes to our perception, and if the sound suddenly changes from classical music to heavy metal, then our perception of taste organizes itself anew.” The act of tasting therefore eludes investigation under standardized laboratory conditions. However, this also opens up new opportunities for our tastes to be changed. This is the subject of the second phase of the project, in which professional and amateur researchers are developing experiments on how to actively shape tasting experiences.

Website “Schmeck!” (“Taste!”) project

Original publication

This text originally appeared in German on 29 November 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper TU Berlin supplement.

Author: Sybille Nitsche