There’s a mathematical model for engineering food that delights our senses

Emotional eating.
Emotional eating.
Image: Reuters/Enrique Marcarian
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The inventors working on the next big breakfast cereal would be wise to consider choosing flakes rather than puffs—because science shows flakes are more prone to excite and delight.

It’s a noteworthy finding from a laboratory 26 miles outside Midtown Manhattan in central New Jersey, where a team of food scientists are constantly searching to explain why certain foods’ tastes, textures, smells, and sounds elicit specific human emotions.

Food has been Gail Vance Civille’s passion since she was nine years old. So instead of using her chemistry degree to work in a typical lab, she founded a consulting firm, Sensory Spectrum, to answer why food makes us feel the way it does. Using focus groups, online surveys, expert panels, and statistical research, Civille’s team of scientists are able to build mathematical models predicting how people perceive and experience the different sensory properties of foods.

It’s the kind of data that can be used to map out—often by food companies—the development of new products. By tweaking the crunchiness, sweetness, or heartiness of a new product, food companies are able to design a specific consumer experience, hopefully one that will keep people coming back for more.

In a presentation at a AACC food science conference Oct. 24, Civille laid out how it works: People decide what foods they like based on immediate sensory traits such as a smell and taste, but there’s a fourth dimension of food that can be just as powerful—how they make people feel. Crunchiness can elicit feelings of excitement; simple grains can inspire pride; and some sweet flavors spark creativity. Those reactions are likely not instinctual, but instead drawn from learned experiences people collect throughout their lives, Civille says.

“What it says to the product developers is, if you build [food products a certain way] people will want to have more of it,” Civille says. “If you can build in a flavor that’s really good, they’ll derive pleasure. Some companies are fully aware and are using these techniques, others are more or less trying to throw things at wall and seeing if it will stick.”

In her estimation, frozen meals usually lack the traits most effective at making people feel good. On the flip side, she says, the beverage industry has become very adept at using her brand of science to appeal to a broad swath of consumers.

“Do you know how hard it is to make orange juice taste like it’s fresh-squeezed?” Civille asks. “That is an art form.”

Civille arguably occupies one of the more fascinating jobs in the food industry, and she knows it. At 59, she says she loves her work so much the thought of retirement rarely crosses her mind. She instead opts to take three rollicking vacations a year with her husband, often packing along a “smell journal” for logging the foreign aromas that intrigue and inspire.

Civille founded her firm in 1986 and continues to serve as its president. She most often conducts research from Sensory Spectrum’s headquarters in New Jersey. The company also runs a second location in Kannapolis, North Carolina. In addition to food products, scientists at the firm test health and beauty products, tequila, and even cat litter.

The work being done at Sensory Spectrum isn’t without its critics. To be sure, there are some who argue the food industry too tightly controls how people experience food, often leading to health issues.

Included in that crowd is former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler, who authored The End of Overeating, which casts the food industry in a similar light as Big Tobacco. Kessler argues that too often companies use people’s brain chemistries to manufacture cheap and unhealthy products that they’ll return to again and again.

Asked whether food companies use her firm’s science to deceive consumers by fiddling with food traits to toy with their emotions, Civille bristled. The negativity and skepticism around so-called “Big Food” is misplaced, she contends, even during a time when people are more skeptical than ever about the impact of processed foods on their health.

“I believe that food companies go out and ask consumers what they like, and consumers tell them what they like, and they build it,” she says. “I do not believe food companies are designing food to trick people. There is not a cabal.”

Civille said she does believe that people are entitled to high-quality food, and companies need to figure out how to make that happen. But, she says, shoppers have a key role to play.

“It’s a two-sided issue,” she says. “The consumers have to get smarter and demand more nutritious food that tastes good, and that’s happening. You’ve got to say: ‘This is what I want.'”