Sunday, 17 October 2010

The taste of silence

savory silence
Savory Silence by Josh Liba
under BY-NC-SA
(Alternative title: "Tastless food? Quick! Get those earplugs on!")

Recently, the BBC News had an article on the work of Woods et al. titled "Effect of background noise on food perception" (published in 'Food Quality and Preference').

The study received particular attention from the press, both at home and abroad. While the inter-correlation between the senses is within popular belief (e.g., impaired vision and auditory perception), the study points to normal life effects that were not - by popular wisdom - normally attributed to an interaction between senses.

The scientific paper demonstrated that the existence of background sound affects the perceived sensory properties of the food; gustatory properties (taste, e.g., saltiness, sweetness) were diminished while auditory properties (e.g., crunchiness) increased. The press extrapolated on the example of in-flight meals, which commonly get described as 'tasteless'. However, if the observations of the study hold, the everyday life effects could be of much greater importance.

Although tempted, I'll skip the case of the restaurant environment (but I do wonder, could a quieter eating environment make a chef's creations tastier?) and, instead, I'll share a few thoughts for the office environment.

The modern, urban environment most of us live and work in tends to be noisy. I don't know whether the effect of background sound is a function of its intensity (I would assume so, possibly also featuring a cut-off level, under which no significant effect on taste perception would be observed) but, please, think of it for a second: The typical office chatter can reach 65 dBA, a properly maintained PC is at about 45 dBA, a ringing phone could be at about 75 dBA, a printer could be between 60 and 75 dBA. For comparison, a quiet room is at about 35 dBA, a lawn mower is at about 90 dBA and a crying baby can reach 110 dBA. In flight cabin noise levels are between 70 and 85 dBA, depending on the type of aircraft, flight phase, cruising speed, location of the measurement point, etc. Thus, while not directly threatening for the human auditory system, the office environment is certainly not quiet.

Now attempting to extrapolate the study to the practical effects on food consumption in an office environment becomes interesting; existing noise levels may be pushing employees to use more salt or sugar to reach the taste intensity the are used to experiencing at home. At an era where both salt use and sugar consumption are under fire for their contribution to high blood pressure and obesity, respectively, the auditory environment around us may be contributing towards the wrong direction. Although rather hasty to urge for action based on limited evidence, the link between sound environment and nutrition-related choices is something that should be looked into. In any case, if one takes into account the other health risks of office noise exposure, it becomes evident that noise control maybe of higher priority than commonly thought.

In the majority of cases the reduction of background noise levels is neither costly nor technically challenging. Simple measures, like relocating noisy equipment, encouraging people to use earphones (instead of loudspeakers), using sound dumping/ diffusing office space dividers, etc., may be a good start. However, in cases where space is precious and the convenience of private offices cannot be afforded, help from an expert should be used. After all, it is a question of both health and productivity!

(BTW, what about air quality and food sensory perception???)

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