What’s the Deal with Mouthfeel?

Posted on March 13th, 2020 by

Written by Nicky Abraham, Brenda Garcia, Lydia Kalenze, and Isabel St. Dennis

Imagine coming home and finding a bowl of chocolate waiting for you. You go to grab one, and as you start to taste it, someone asks you what it feels like. As you continue eating it, you start to describe the feeling of the chocolate. First, you notice the chewiness of the chocolate, the graininess which only low quality chocolates have, after would be the moisture absorption or moisture release which is the amount of saliva produced by the chocolate this would be when you would notice the slight powder-like feeling against your mouth as your saliva is being absorbed by the piece. The smoothness and viscosity of the chocolate would come towards the end when you are overwhelmed with the strong waves of rich, velvety chocolate. This would be when you feel all the lumps and bumps of the chocolate yet. After you finish that piece, your mouth salivates more, waiting for another piece to come. Even if you were unable to see the food, you would still recognize it as chocolate. But what if you were to be presented with a pear, jicama, white cheddar cheese, and potato all cut into cubes of the same size, how would you know which food is which? Why is it that you can describe the experience of food without including the taste? This experience of sensing the physical sensations of the chocolate is called “mouthfeel”.

Mouthfeel can be defined as the physical sensations in the mouth that are produced by particular foods. Two things that are similar in taste can have completely different mouthfeels depending on their textures. For example, think of what eating peanuts feels like. You first get hit with the salty coating that melts on your tongue. You start to chew, and with every bite you feel that satisfying crunch until the peanuts break down into tiny bits, which is when you first start to really taste that peanut-y taste. Even after you swallow, the taste of peanuts still lingers on your breath. Now think about eating a spoonful of peanut butter, something that tastes very similar but has a completely different texture. As you close your lips around the glob of peanut butter and slide it off of the spoon, it starts to melt all over your taste buds. It tastes slightly sweet. The thick peanut butter gets stuck between your teeth and you have to work it out with your tongue. Some people like crunchy peanut butter, and some would rather have creamy peanut butter, and the differences that you detect between the two textures come down to mouthfeel.

You experience mouthfeel every time you take a bite of any food and/or put anything into your mouth. Mouthfeel can vary substantially from when a food or drink enters the mouth to when it is ready to be swallowed. Different textures produce different sensations in your mouth–some are perceived to be pleasant while others are not; however, this differs greatly among people. Some examples of different textures include crunchy, soft, chewy, gelatinous, grainy, chunky, stale, creamy, bubbly, and oily, just to name a few. Mouthfeel is also important because it gives us information about the quality of the food by allowing us to detect if a food has gone mushy when it is supposed to be crisp, or stale when it is supposed to be crunchy. Mouthfeel also gives us more information about the food in order for us to decide if we like the food or not. Something may taste wonderful, but you may not enjoy it if the texture puts you off—you can thank mouthfeel for that!

An example of this is when we tried eating our favorite sweet foods after dropping Gymnema Sylvestre on our tongues, a shrub’s liquid extract nicknamed the “Sugar Destroyer” that blocks the sweet receptors on the tongue. Things that used to satisfy our sweet tooths now made us grimace in disgust, because without being able to taste sweetness, we could rely only on mouthfeel. Chocolate melting on the tongue tastes incredibly gross without the sweet and rich flavor of the chocolate. Chewing on a gummy bear was like chewing on a rubber tire. Eating a sugar cube did not have a taste but made it feel like you swallowed a mouthful of sand. Conversely, cafeteria pizza with too-sugary tomato sauce was much more savory with the Sugar Destroyer, and tasted better than it did without. This experiment quickly made us grateful for mouthfeel and helped us realize how important texture is to perceiving food tastes.

Mouthfeel can sometimes be difficult to study because of how it varies so much from person to person and from culture to culture. Food scientist Ole Mouritsen explains in his book Mouthfeel: How texture makes taste that there are significant cultural differences in the way people perceive food. In Japanese culture, for example, mouthfeel is incredibly important. The Japanese vocabulary has around 400 words to describe different food textures, whereas English only has about 80. The technique of tsukemono, or “pickling things”, is commonly seen in Japanese side dishes with foods such as pickled cucumber, eggplant, or daikon. Preparing the vegetables in this way gives them an incredibly complex mouthfeel, evoking feelings of crunchiness and an intense flavor, while still feeling soft and flexible.

Mouthfeel is also really important while considering wine tasting. According to this website, the sensations that different wines present depend on body, alcohol, acidity, and sweetness. The body of the wine can be full (thick) or light (thin), just like whole milk versus skim milk. The amount of alcohol it contains can influence how warm it feels in the mouth and add to the body. The more “bite” a wine has, the more acidic it is. Acidity can cause a burning or stinging sensation on the tongue. The sweetness refers not to taste—as a wine flavored with pear or apple can still leave the mouth feeling dry—but to the actual amount of sugar present in the wine. Many of the beautiful complexities of wine and wine tasting would be lost without mouthfeel.

Another important topic to consider when studying mouthfeel is how it varies across the lifespan. Younger children tend to be more picky eaters, and aren’t as open to trying new foods as adults. This could be due to a heightened sensitivity to mouthfeel in children. One study found that sensitivity to touch in children was related to picky eating — children who disliked putting their hands in sandy or slimy substances also rejected a lot of the foods that were presented to them. This is because touch sensitivity in hands is related to touch sensitivity in the mouth.

The knowledge of mouthfeel has lots of potential to be applied to everyday life. It helps explain why we choose certain foods over others, and why children are picky eaters. Cultural differences in mouthfeel explain why some foods that come from certain countries are prepared in a certain way, and the words that are used to describe them demonstrate the range of importance to the people in those countries as well. Mouthfeel helps us determine when a food has gone bad and shouldn’t be eaten, or if a vegetable is perfectly ripe and will be good in the dish you’re cooking. Think about mouthfeel the next time you eat a peanut butter sandwich–do you prefer chunky or smooth peanut butter?

 

References

Cambell, S. (n.d.). The Mouthfeel of Chocolate & The Cacao Tree. Retrieved from https://www.streetdirectory.com/food_editorials/snacks/chocolates/the_mouthfeel_of_chocolate_the_cacao_tree.html

Parsons, R. (2017, June 2). Mouthfeel: the effect of sensation and texture on the flavor of food. Retrieved March 3, 2020, from https://www.splendidtable.org/story/mouthfeel-the-effect-of-sensation-and-texture-on-the-flavor-of-food

Mouthfeel. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/mouthfeel?s=t

Nederkoorn, C., Houben, K., & Havermans, R. C. (2019, May 1). Taste the texture. The relation between subjective tactile sensitivity, mouthfeel and picky eating in young adults. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30664910

The Mouthfeel of Wine. (2018, July 1). Retrieved from https://www.markhamvineyards.com/1879-society-newsletter/the-mouthfeel-of-wine/#

 

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