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The Taste of Shape

Which do you prefer—gummy bears or gummy worms? Spaghetti or mostaccioli? Sliced bread or a roll?

Food is one of the pleasures of life. Most of us look forward to times of day and seasons that feature our favorite dishes. But why we like those foods is complicated. All of our senses—sight, smell, sound, touch, in addition to taste—play a role. So does our memory and perceptions. Fond memories of preparing a dish with or for a loved one, the fabulous restaurant in which we first enjoyed it, and, believe it or not, the shape in which it was prepared, all contribute toward our fondness for certain foods.

Marketers and chefs know the significance of visual presentation. We are drawn into restaurants or the family table due to the aroma of what’s cooking. And that sound of the sizzle on the grill attracts us along with that smell.

What’s known as “mouth feel” is also significant. Some like cold or hot dishes or foods we can hold in our hands. We also have our preferences for crispy, crunchy, or creamy foods. And how much we enjoy any of it is based, at least in part, on past experience.

According to a study posted in the National Library of Medicine, (PubMed, “How sensory properties of foods affect human feeding behavior” by B.J. Rolls, E. A. Rowe, E T Rolls), the shape of food influences both our preference of appearance and taste. The study stated, “Changes in shape led to a specific decrease in the pleasantness of the shape eaten and to a significant enhancement (14%) of food intake when three shapes were offered compared with intake of the subject’s favorite shape.”

The food-shape link is so strong it extends to the fonts on menus. A 2015 study, (Atlas Obscuar post, “The Power of Circles in Food and Drink” by Paula Mejia) showed that round typefaces on menus, as opposed to angular ones, were preferred and associated with the taste of sweet.

I’m not a big fan of farfalle, also known as bow-tie pasta. As pretty as they are to look at, I prefer the firmer, tubular shapes of macaroni or penne. The texture, how the sauce sticks to the pasta, and the familiarity of childhood family dinners are only a few of the reasons these types of pasta top my list.

Scientists state that shape does in fact alter the flavor of foods. Molecules reach the tongue and nose at different speed and order with the change of shape.

Several years ago, the British company Cadbury updated the shape of their chocolates called Dairy Milk. The public strongly reacted claiming that in doing so the flavor changed. Cadbury responded that the recipe and preparation process remained identical. The only change was the shape of the angular chunks to ones that were curved.

Their goal was to allow the chocolates to fit into the mouth easier. But this also changed how quickly the chocolate melted and molecules were released on the tongue. The curved shape released the oils in the chocolate quicker resulting in an oily taste.

When preparing foods, shape is significant once again. Think of how differently raw, whole carrots taste from diced or sliced and also how they taste when cooked. And the more surface area of the ingredient, the greater the change. For example, we increase the browning or charring on a vegetable or piece of meat with elongated shapes of food.

The shape also affects aroma. The smaller something is cut, the greater the aroma, and as we know, smell is an important contributor to taste. Chop broccoli or cabbage and the smell of the sulfur can be offensive. Slice onions or mince garlic and we can almost taste them while heating in the pan.

**Want to know how to include loved ones with dementia in holiday gatherings? See Navigating Alzheimer’s, The Alzheimer’s Spouse, and Inspired Caregiving.

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