Thought for Food Blog

How Important is Food Texture?

Most people obsess over flavour – everything from ice cream to cheese to chocolate. However, food professionals, from chefs to manufacturers, know that creaminess, crispiness and chewiness is just as important and crucial in making something appealing to consume.

Ingredion are a company whose Texture Centre of Excellence helps the food industry achieve the perfect consistency for their products - 'The magic begins here,' reads the website. Texture is big business and the science of food structure is known as food rheology.

Food Texture and Confectionery | IFIS Publishing

However, in people's every day enjoyment of eating, texture is often considered the poor relation of taste and smell, in fact some research from the US found that textural awareness was often subconscious. Yet food professionals know all too well that, while the sensory spotlight may fall on flavour when a mouthful is being savoured, get the texture wrong and it's game over – the consumer will reject it outright.

Identity issues

Not only does texture have a casting vote over a food's acceptability, it is also essential in identifying it. When researchers pureed and strained foods, the test subjects were only able to identify 40.7% of them. Flavour alone is not enough.

Sense and sensitivity

Humans are therefore incredibly sensitive to texture. Touch is of course the primary sense we use to determine it, but kinesthetics (the sense of movement and position), sound (crunch: good, squeak: bad) and sight are also involved.

We can detect ice crystals in ice cream measuring 40 microns (or 1/25th of a millimeter). Millions of pounds are spent in research and development to deter the growth of these harmless crystals. This is also why ice cream made with liquid nitrogen is so prized. It freezes so fast that the crystals are virtually undetectable, giving the creamiest mouth feel.

Food economics

In Food Texture and Viscosity, Concept and Measurement, Malcolm Bourne of Cornell University uses beef as an example of the vast economic implications of food's textural quality. The tougher the cut, the cheaper it is – despite the priciest, unblemished fillet steak lacking the flavour of fattier cuts on the bone.

Bourne, who is a consultant for the food industry, says the three most relished texture notes are crispy, creamy and chewy. Food with more bite has become more popular in recent decades, he says, because dental health improvements have meant that many people keep their own teeth for most of their lives.

The mechanics

We have, writes Bourne in his book, a 'deeply ingrained need to chew'. It starts in babyhood and continues right through to old age when, if we can afford it, we'll throw cash and inconvenience at fixing our teeth so we may continue to chew, even though we could just as well get our nutrition from soft or pureed foods. Gnawing is a satisfying business.

It's good for you, too. A growing body of research indicates that it increases blood flow to the brain, which helps stave off dementia. In 2012, researchers from the Department of Odontology and the Aging Research Center at the Karolinska Institutet and from Karlstads Universitet found found that old people who could chew hard foods, such as apples, had a considerably lower risk of failing mental faculties.

The world's worst textures

Food aversions are generally subjective, but there are definitely trends in unpopular textures. To the Western palate, sliminess is often greeted with suspicion and associated with decay. Personally, I love a mushroom, but they are repeatedly berated for their 'slug-like' and 'rubbery' texture. Offal is my main textural foe.

The most extreme textural revulsion occurs when we feel something unexpected in our mouths. If you pop in a chunk of chocolate only to find that it doesn't melt, or you're immersed in the gloopy wonder of a mushroom risotto and suddenly bite down on some grit, you get a rude awakening. An unsettling moment of panic that your food is rotten, or contaminated with something gross.

But I want to end by thinking of all the sublime textures out there, like crunching a puffy meringue into sweet powder, revealing a satisfyingly chewy middle. What's your favourite? And where do you stand on mastication? Are you a religious 100-chews-per-mouthful type?

(Image Credit: Hans at www.pixabay.com)

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EBSCO offers FSTA – Food Science and Technology Abstracts on EBSCOhost and EBSCO Discovery Service™. They, along with Research Information, recently sponsored the webinar, “Seven Key Questions to Evaluate Your Food Science and Nutrition Information.” Watch free on demand.

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