By Malik Tiedt, BSPH Student in Nutrition
Sugary treats and savory meals bring people together during winter festivities; yet, the textural characteristics of these foods – the creaminess of eggnog and the way chocolate sweets melt in your mouth – are overlooked as contributors to the holiday experience.
Food texture, the physical characteristics arising from the structural elements of food, plays a critical role in making eating enjoyable. This article explores how food texture affects our eating experience during the holidays and considers how these attributes influence human health and nutrition behavior.
Defining Food Texture
The term “food texture” is difficult to define due to the variety of textural characteristics and the diverse terminology used to describe them. To simplify this process, food scientists and nutritionists have collaborated to delineate terminology, summarized below.
Mechanical characteristics refer to properties related to the amount of force required from the jaw to chew or break down food in the oral cavity. Geometric characteristics, on the other hand, refer to inherent properties related to a food’s structure and appearance. The last category is broader but predominantly refers to textures associated with moisture and fat content.
In the holiday spirit, let’s consider how the texture of peppermint bark is associated with the five senses (sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell). Seeing this treat creates expectations as to how it should feel – maybe we expect our teeth to sink into the smooth texture of the chocolate, only to be surprised by a slight snap as a piece of the bark is broken off. The harder, solidified peppermint candies add a sense of crunch, a diverse experience shown to be more pleasurable in comparison to foods and with uniform texture.
Describing food as crunchy illustrates how texture is sensed via both touch and sound. Research reveals that crunchy foods (i.e. chips or crackers) generate low-pitched sounds because they are chewed by the molars near the back of the oral cavity, which differs from crispy foods (i.e. an apple) eaten near the front of the mouth.
The sensation of taste and smell is dually dependent on the location of food breakdown due to the distribution of taste buds and olfactory nerves. For instance, nerves are exposed to scents for longer periods of time when foods (such as hard peppermint candy) are slowly broken down by saliva.
The brain associates specific textural combinations with tastes. In fact, texture has been shown to be more important than the actual flavor of food in terms of food preferences across different age and cultural groups.
Differences among various populations in terms of textural preference, however, still exist. Children, for instance, are less likely to embrace eating plant-based foods that are more difficult to orally manipulate. Research has also evaluated sex-related taste preferences, with some studies suggesting that the size of an oral cavity influences the pleasure of a particular texture.
Food Texture and Health
Food texture can also contribute to the suppression of appetite as foods with more intense textural characteristics (higher hardness, viscosity, and heterogeneity) lead to greater satiety. These effects of food texture on appetite is one way in which food scientists are beginning to target the nutritional management of the global pandemic of overweight and obese populations.
Food texture is also related to the emotional aspects of eating. Anxious individuals, for instance, are more receptive to changes in the textural properties due to the auditory signals created while chewing. Additionally, different neurological signals created by textures (sounds, smells) can become addictive and associated with pleasurable foods.
The influence of food texture in both physical and emotional realms can provide a framework for individuals to critically evaluate dietary changes. These textural attributes can also influence the ways in which nutritionists provide dietary recommendations. For instance, healthy foods can be prepared in different ways not only to nourish appetites, but to also appeal to textural preferences.
Food Texture and Consumption
Research on food texture generally falls into two categories: one is focused on how the addictive component of texture increases marketability of snack foods, whereas the other is focused on how texture can improve human health. As conscious consumers, it is important to acknowledge how “snack foods” appeal to our textural preferences in efforts to increase consumption and generate profit. The ethics of altering food texture and its relationship with psychological components of food consumption is an additionally complex conversation that should be considered by those in industry.
Texture and the Holidays
Food texture involves multidisciplinary stakeholders within the fields of food science, psychology, health behavior, and nutrition. A critical assessment of texture can help consumers evaluate their food preferences and become more mindful eaters, especially during the holidays. Whether it be eating peppermint bark or looking at foods on the shelves of grocery stores, critically understanding food texture can have profound influences on our dietary habits.
Peer-edited by Mihaela Bozukova, PhD Candidate in Computational Genomics
Photo credit: The Spruce Eats