On the menu at last Tuesday’s food-texture talks at the ACS national meeting was a circus of flavors and sensual experiences (if only via PowerPoint): force deformation curves of fractured foam cell-walls for starters, an entrée of roasted-nut plot distributions, and a milky-smooth monologue on the pleasures and pains of food texture for dessert. (Regrettably, hotel catering didn’t contribute to the spread, as the session was over before lunchtime, and we all left salivating.)
After a couple detailed recounts of experiments dealing with cell-rupturing crispiness and nut-cracking crunchiness, Gail Vance Civille of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., wrapped everything up by bringing us back to the basics. Texture, she defined, is the sensory measure of structure or inner makeup of foods and other materials. We measure it with our skin and muscles, and we need people to evaluate it; machines can only help simulate textural experiences. We break down foods in three ways—mechanical, salivary, and thermal—and when foods don’t break down the way they’re supposed to, we reject them. For example, a waxy piece of chocolate that doesn’t melt on our tongues as it should is, well, waxy and unappetizing.
“Foods are meant to be destroyed,” says Civille, and in the process we are very attuned to factors like whether they’re adhesive, rough, hard, or springy, and whether they leave residual loose particles, absorb moisture, and provide a uniform bite. People don’t like foods that are messy or hard to control. That’s why we add raisins to our cereal, Civille points out: the fruit picks up the flakes that get stuck in our teeth. Cherry tomatoes are a turnoff to a lot of people—why? Because their outer layer ruptures and squirts juice everywhere; this is problematic. “Snickers,” on the other hand, “is almost a perfect food,” hails Civille. “The chocolate melts, the peanuts break down smaller and smaller and mix with the nougat, and everything disappears at the same time.” In case you were wondering why you can’t lay off the Snickers, there you go.
At the end of the talk, someone in the audience asked Civille about Pop Rocks, curious why people would enjoy a candy that explodes in your mouth and gives you an unusual tingling sensation. If you’re not familiar with the retro confection: Pop Rocks are candy bits that contain pressurized CO2 gas; when you put them in your mouth your saliva dissolves the candy, allowing the carbonation to be released from the tiny bubbles. (It’s like suddenly a hundred hormonal teenagers start throwing a rave party in your mouth—fun!) Civille clarified her argument on texture pleasures and pains: “People don’t want to get rid of all pain, they just want to control it.” For example, people still eat chilies, and they drink alcohol and carbonated beverages. “Carbonation is pain,” Civille acknowledged, but we enjoy it nonetheless. And in a final moment of enthusiasm, she cried, “Alcohol is pain!” Cheers to that.