Soggy chips, limp salad or fully melted ice-cream, none of these sound particularly appealing but why not? The food is in essence the same – a limp Caesar salad contains the same ingredients as a crisp one and liquid ice cream has the same taste as its frozen self. The difference is texture, or the “mouth feel” of food.
The official term, in case you ever need it for a pub quiz, is rheology, which basically means the consistency and flow of food. This explains why we would eat a handful of candyfloss but not a handful of sugar, even though our brain knows they are essentially the same thing.
For example, Senior Research Scientist Dr Esra Cakir-Fuller says it’s a well-known fact that customers like creamy milk but improving creaminess can be challenging.
“The easiest way to make a substance creamier is to add more fat, but that impacts nutrition so one of the things we are looking at is how we can create a more creamy sensory experience without incorporating more fat.”
Professor Joanne Hort, Fonterra-Riddet Chair in Consumer and Sensory Science agrees saying the trend towards healthier products is pushing scientists to better understand the building blocks of our products.
“Consumers are asking us to take out things which are seen as unhealthy, things like sugar and salt so as researchers we are looking at the structures of different products. We need to work out what textures things like salt, sugar, and fat give and then find ways to mimic them once they have been removed.”
Another challenge is that people’s perception of texture is unique. Professor Hort says a classic example is chocolate.
“People eat chocolate differently, there are those who chew it fast, those who chew it slowly and thirdly those who put it in their mouth and let it dissolve and melt. We all eat differently and enjoy different textures which means getting the right feel for our products can be quite difficult”
Dr Cakir-Fuller says consumers in different markets also have different texture preferences.
“We work closely with a number of chefs around the world to work out what is important for them and the customers in their area. For example, people in China may like very different textures to those in Australia or Japan”
So the next time you take a bite of something tasty… stop and think how does the food feel in your mouth. That’s the importance of texture.