Potato Chips: Tasting With Our Ears

image via the Loud Food Club


We Love the Crunch.
Its just potato, hot fat, and salt, but together they make magic. The first chip out of the bag—pristinely crisp and salty, with a crunch that is unsullied by time or ambient humidity— it’s one of our most underrated gustatory pleasures. And it’s an auditory pleasure as well.

It turns out that in the sensory vocabulary of food scientists, crispy and crunchy are not the same thing. When we eat potato chips, we hear the crunch, but we’re really sensing it in our mouths. When it comes to crispness, even though it’s bound up with the crunch, we’re assessing the crispness with our ears.

A team of Oxford University scientists tested this phenomenon by goosing the crunch sounds of chip-eaters. The test subjects munched on Pringles (favored by the scientific community for the unnatural uniformity of the chips) while wearing microphones to capture the crunch and headphones to deliver the sound. When the sound level was amplified, the potato chips were perceived as both crisper and fresher. The subjects happily chomped away on stale chips when the auditory cues suggested freshness.

We even lose pleasure in fresh chips when there are no auditory cues. In a second study, test subjects ate chips while wearing sound-blocking headphones. The chewers grew bored with the eating experience; in fact, all that chewing started to feel like so much work. The brain processes that tell us when we like a food aren’t just linked to taste, but factor input from the whole body.

Crunching the numbers.
Potato chips are a $6 billion business in the U.S. Two-thirds of us have a bag in the cupboard right now. Despite our professed commitment to healthy choices, we’re eating more chips than ever.

Chip technology.
Big chip business means that serious research dollars flow to the community of food scientists in the quest for the perfect crunch. Engineers employ signal analyzers to measure the sound frequencies of airborne crunches (the chew you can hear from across the room) and artificial mouths(?!) to gauge the mechanics of something they call oral residence—the combination of teeth time and tongue compressions. They regulate chewing with metronomes to perform frequency-time studies of mastication, and study the range of crispy/crunchy sensory perceptions found in consumers from different ethnic groups.

With all the chip analysis and quantification of sensory inputs, we can only hope that someday the snack industry can crack the code, and every potato chip will be as satisfying as the first one out of the bag.


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