Inside Our Food

How Does Texture Affect the Way We Eat?

Crispy, slimy, gooey, velvety—there is a whole lexicon of words to describe the different textures of food products, reflecting our innate hunger for contrast and variety. But when it comes to enjoying what we eat, texture is often considered secondary to taste and smell. Read on to discover how texture deeply affects the way we eat.

What is texture?

Although a simple word, ‘texture’ describes a highly complex sensory process. 

Ole G. Mouritsen, Professor of Gastrophysics and author of Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste, explains that “when we put food in our mouths, we activate nerve cell endings with receptors that are sensitive to temperature, touch, pain and pressure, which all contribute to the sensation of ‘mouthfeel’. Other nerve endings in the teeth provide additional information about the structure of the food and its hardness. These receptors are found in other parts of the body, but there is a much greater density in the mouth than anywhere else. This indicates that mouthfeel is very finely tuned; a characteristic that is especially important for our survival.” 

Indeed, mouthfeel and texture appear to be crucial for us to recognise different foods correctly. An experiment on college students wearing blindfolds, for instance, found that when many different raw ingredients were pureed, less than half of the participants could identify them. The foods with the lowest success rates were cucumber (7%) and cabbage (4%).1

But it’s not all about what happens in the mouth: textural preferences vary across countries, showing that they can also be influenced by culture, too. For instance, western cultures tend to avoid slimy, sticky and gooey foods, often prized among Asian dishes such as marinated jellyfish salad and Chinese sticky rice (lo mai fan). The Japanese even have a word for it – neba-neba and these foods include fermented soybean, seaweeds and raw eggs.

A worker holds a pack of natto - a traditional Japanese neba-neba dish made from steamed and fermented soybeans. (Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

Appreciating texture

So when do we learn these engrained associations about food textures? Studies have shown that even babies have strong textural preferences when it comes to yoghurt; texture even appears to have a stronger influence than taste or colour on which foods ‘fussy’ children refuse to eat.2 At a young age, textural preferences are thought to be driven mainly by physiological factors: since their teeth and facial muscles are still developing, toddlers and young children feel an instinctive aversion to greasy, slippery, slimy foods that are difficult to manipulate in the mouth.3 But by our teenage years, we are much more conscious of the textural qualities of foods and start to become influenced by social, cultural and psychological factors - including the food experiences we come across on our holidays. Market research indicates that Millennials (people born between 1981 and 1996) appear to be especially open-minded and willing to try new food textures, with 68% of survey respondents agreeing that texture influenced their food purchasing decisions

Interestingly, studies also indicate that even the time of day may have a significant influence on how we appreciate the texture. Based on a survey of over 150 consumers in the USA, we are least tolerant of unfamiliar food textures at breakfast time, when we want something that can be swallowed and digested easily.4 At lunchtime, people tend to focus on foods that are quick and easy to prepare, with little appreciation of their textural qualities. In contrast, the evening meal is when the texture is most enjoyed: we are more relaxed and willing to experiment. And the fitting finale we crave is a soft, smooth, creamy dessert that leaves a pleasant feeling in the mouth. For the ultimate ‘exploratory’ evening meal, you can try having dinner at Dans le Noir, a chain of restaurants that offer ‘a unique sensory and human experience.’ Meals are served in pitch-black darkness, so that visitors can be released ‘from the omnipresence of sight and the weight of its influence’, allowing their other senses to awaken.

Tourists exploring food stalls at La Boqueria market, Barcelona. People are unconsciously influenced by what people around them are eating, meaning food experiences abroad can play a key role in shaping our textural preferences. (Photo By David Zorrakino/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Textural delights

For many of our most popular foods, texture plays a big part in their appeal, from luxury chocolates and ultra-smooth ice creams to crispy French fries and carbonated drinks. But what makes some textures so appealing? To produce luxurious, creamy textures, manufacturers aim to make the particles of the food product as small as possible, below the thresholds our mouths can detect.  Within the chocolate industry, for instance, it’s generally considered that particle sizes greater than 25 micrometres are perceived as ‘gritty’, whilst particles under 20 micrometres give a silky and smooth texture5. To achieve these fine particles, the cocoa mass is ground between rollers (a process called refining). The texture is improved further during the later conching process, where the mixture is heated to high temperatures so that the milk fats become evenly distributed throughout. As for ice cream, smoother textures are achieved by freezing the mixture extremely quickly while stirring constantly. This helps to prevent large ice crystals from forming and giving a ‘grainy’ coarse texture. 

Besides creaminess, we are also drawn to contrast. Across the world, different cultures agree that food becomes much more interesting when it combines distinctly different textures – for instance, soft and creamy versus crisp and crunchy.6 Indeed, this philosophy underpins some of our most popular and trending food products, from ice cream with added cookie dough balls to Taiwanese bubble tea, a milky tea drink containing chewy tapioca balls.

Cannoli is a traditional Sicilian dessert of contrasting textures, pairing a fried pastry shell with a soft, creamy filling. (Photo by Nancy Lane via Getty Images)

It’s not just the food

“Research unequivocally demonstrates that the perceived flavour and pleasure of foods and drinks can be affected by the surface texture of packaging materials and serving ware,” says Professor Charles Spence, an Experimental Psychologist at Oxford University. For instance, his studies found that jelly babies and biscuits tend to taste chewier when served from rougher plates, that coffee is judged as more acidic when tasted from rough cups, and that people rate wine as being sweeter and more pleasant if they are simultaneously stroking a piece of velvet, compared with sandpaper.7,8,9

“We can explain these results with the notion of sensation transference, where the feelings caused by an extrinsic sensory cue carry over to influence intrinsic sensory cues of a product,” he said. Curiously, a different study team who investigated the influence of various cup sleeve materials on the perceived taste of coffee found that towel, linen, stainless steel, and cardboard materials were matched with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter taste qualities, respectively.10

Putting texture to work

But learning about the power of food textures isn’t just fun: this knowledge could help us on a practical level, too. Modifying a food’s texture to increase the sensation of fullness, for instance, could be a tool to combat overeating. A review of 23 studies found that solid foods were much more effective in reducing hunger than liquid ones and that highly viscous foods increased fullness more than less viscous foods.11 Professor Anwesha Sarkar (University of Leeds), who led the research, said, “In all the studies we looked at, the nutrients and energy density were exactly the same – only the texture was different. This suggests that we can make foods seem more filling just by altering their textural qualities, for instance, adding locust bean gum to milkshakes to increase the viscosity.”

On the flip side, understanding textures can also help those with low appetites. For instance, adding textural contrast can help make foods more appealing for those with impaired smell and/or taste, whilst keeping the variety of textures low could encourage ‘fussy’ children to eat more.

Texture will also have a leading role in encouraging us to shift to more sustainable, planet-friendly diets. The past few years have seen an explosion of meat and dairy alternatives using innovative approaches to replicate the textures of their animal-based counterparts. “It’s much more difficult to replicate the textures of animal-based products than their taste, but there are some incredibly versatile vegan ingredients,” says ‘Badger’, chef/owner of Badger’s Vegan Kitchen. “For instance, we use seitan (wheat gluten) to mimic chicken and textured vegetable protein to replicate tuna. Perhaps our most inventive product is our egg mayo alternative, which uses broken pasta to mimic the egg white and roughly milled chickpeas for the yolk.” Meanwhile, other companies are using cultured fungi protein to mimic the texture of meat, and plant-based fats (such as coconut) to add creaminess to dairy alternatives. 

Banner illustration by Erica Moriconi

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