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The Design Secret That Makes Food Taste Better, According To Science

Redesigning what we use to eat can impact how we perceive food–and could even encourage us to adopt healthier diets.

The designer Andreas Fabian got a PhD in spoons (really), and now he is on a mission to bring science to cutlery design. His first utensil, called the Goûte, which he created with Charles Michel, the chef-in-residence at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory, is a teardrop-shaped glass wand that’s modeled after a finger and preliminary research suggests it makes food taste better. It’s used to eat creamy foods like peanut butter, Nutella, yogurt, or hummus.

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“There hasn’t been a lot of development in the design of Western cutlery over the last two centuries,” Fabian says. “We think that current cutlery isn’t adding to the pleasure of eating.”

Fabian and Michel’s collaboration began with a question Fabian asked when they first met: What is the greatest compliment you can receive as a chef? Michel’s response was for someone to lick their plate. The two began to think about the intimate experiences people can have with food when they’re unconcerned about proper manners–licking your finger while cooking, licking your plate when finished. What if they could create a new kind of utensil that mimicked that feeling, bringing a new level of mindfulness and joy to eating?

Studies have shown that what utensils people use impacts how they taste and perceive food–according to a 2013 study by Vanessa Harrar and Charles Spence, the weight, color, size, and even shape of cutlery can cause slight differences in taste and in how expensive people perceive food to be. For instance, according to the study, “yogurt was perceived as denser and more expensive when tasted from a lighter plastic spoon as compared to the artificially weighted spoons.”

Michel and Fabian co-founded the design studio Michel / Fabian to work on new utensils, starting with a series of prototypes for a 2014 exhibition at London’s Science Museum called “Cravings.” Goûte is the first of those prototypes to come into production.

Fabian started the design process by 3D printing a model of a single finger and adding a handle. Next, he abstracted the form of a finger so that it was smooth and shapely, then decided on glass as the material because it “feels beautiful in your mouth.” A wood version is available, as well, and acts more like a honey dipper.

To test the product, Fabian and Michel teamed up with the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford, an experimental psychology lab which focuses on multi-sensory perception that’s run by Charles Spence. Michel is chef-in-residence and conducts research on food aesthetics at the CRL. After having participants taste yogurt using plastic spoons and using a Goûte, they found that participants perceived the yogurt as better and creamier when using the Goûte.

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The research is preliminary, so more studies need to be done. Bucks New University recently gave the studio a grant to continue researching prototypes at the CRL in collaboration with the French cooking and hotel management school Institut Paul Bocuse. This spring, Fabian plans to test the studio’s creations in an experimental kitchen. He and Michel hope to publish the research in the academic journal Frontiers In Multisensory Human-Food Interaction.

The research is part of a larger investigation into whether greater mindfulness around the process of eating can help people choose healthier diets. Using the grant money, Fabian hopes to experiment with a spherical bowl that must always be held. His question: If you can feel the weight of how much food you’re consuming, do you feel fuller at the end of a meal?

Of course, it’ll take a lot more than a few scientific papers and some unorthodox cutlery to change cultural habits around eating. But the Goûte, at least, looks finger-licking good.

[Photos: Joe Sarah]

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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