How does telling your dinner party guests a few details about the wine you’re serving dramatically change their perception of the taste of it? How does the shape of a restaurant table impact how much you eat, and which types of songs can make your Pinot Noir or other wines tastes more acidic?
In this episode of the Unreserved Wine Talk podcast, I’m chatting with journalist Nell McShane Wulfhart.
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- What’s the difference between taste and flavour?
- How do supertasters experience taste and flavour differently from others?
- What impact does our knowledge of a specific wine have on the tasting experience?
- What simple strategy can we use to improve our dinner party guests’ experience?
How do extrasensory cues impact flavour and enjoyment?
- Why does Nell recommend adding a squeeze of limes or lemons to food or water?
- Why do ice cream companies add certain scents inside their packaging?
- What effect does loud music or noise have on your sense of taste?
- Should you serve your best wine first or last at a dinner party?
- Why should you consider serving two wines at the same time?
- How can you help guests to feel more comfortable at a gathering?
- How can you use lighting throughout a party to influence guests’ experiences?
- What fun activity can you try with wine tasting and different types of music?
- Why does music have a bigger impact on complex beverages like coffee and wine?
- How can you use your music playlist to complement your menu?
- Why do our palate and preferences change when we’re on a plane?
- Can we hear the difference between various types of beverages just from the sound of the pour?
- Why are white wine glasses better than flutes for drinking bubbly?
- How does the shape of the table in a restaurant affect our dining experience?
- What should you consider when selecting a glass for a particular beverage?
- How do the shape and texture of food affect how satisfied you feel?
- What’s the relationship between weight and perception of quality?
- Which wine bottle characteristics make the most impact on wine buyers?
- How do health claims on food and wine packaging influence our perception?
- How is scent marketing being used outside of the food and beverage industry?
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Men, in general, are not as good at smelling things as women are. - Nell McShane Wulfhart Click to tweet
If you have a great bottle of wine, make that the first thing you serve. - Nell McShane Wulfhart Click to tweet
Round tables make us feel more comfortable and more likely to linger. - Nell McShane Wulfhart Click to tweet
About Nell McShane Wulfhart
Nell McShane Wulfhart is a journalist from Philadelphia, currently based in Uruguay. She’s a former New York Times columnist and frequent contributor. Nell also writes for Travel + Leisure, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal, and T Magazine, to name just a few of many.
- Connect with Nell McShane Wulfhart
- Diary of a Book Launch: An Insider Peek from Idea to Publication
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- My new class The 5 Wine & Food Pairing Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Dinner And How To Fix Them Forever
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Natalie MacLean 0:00
How does telling your dinner party guests a few details about the wine you’re serving dramatically change their perception of the taste of it? How does the shape of a restaurant table impact how much you eat? And which types of songs can make your Pinot Noir or other wines taste more acidic? You’re going to get those tips and stories and more from our guest this evening. Nell McShane Wulfhart is a decision coach and an author. She has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and many other outlets. Her most recent book The Great Stewardess Rebellion, about how flight attendants in the 1960s and 70s staged a revolution for working woman everywhere, is described by The Wall Street Journal as “exhilarating”. And the paper’s reviewer also wrote “Wulfhart is a vivid storyteller who writes with energy and style”. Nell’s audio book Off Menu is about the secret science of food drinks and the dining experience. And she joins me now from her home in Uruguay. It’s so great to have you. Now, before we dive into your book, Off Menu your audio book, you have a great clarification. What’s the difference between taste and flavour?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 1:13
When we think about taste, taste really is just a few modalities. It’s salty, it’s sour, it’s bitter, it’s sweet. It’s not flavour. When we say that something tastes delicious you know we’re talking about its flavour. We’re not talking about its taste.
Natalie MacLean 1:31
Does taste combine with smell to create flavour? Like how do we get to deliciousness, which is a flavour as you said?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 1:37
Yes, taste and smell. I mean I talk in the book about how what we hear can change the flavour of what we’re eating. There was a great experiment by Charles Spence. He called it, I think, the sonic chip. Basically he gave a bunch of people in the lab some Pringles out of the can and he put headphones on them. And for some of the people eating the Pringles, he turned up the volume of their own crunching. So it was louder. And those people perceived those chips as being fresher than the ones who just heard it they’re crunching and at the regular volume. I mean they were the exact same Pringles. Like a Pringle’s a Pringle. That’s the sort of their appeal right. But it was if that particular sound actually affected like the flavour of what they were tasting. But yeah I think in general smell is definitely the most powerful one, especially when it comes to things like wine. And it’s that flavour it’s like it’s the smell plus the taste plus the other senses that creates flavour. Flavour is really created more in your mind than it is on your tongue.
Natalie MacLean 2:32
Okay. And you also talk about how women are more likely to be super tasters than men are. And that’s especially a sensitivity to bitterness or the burn of high alcohol and spirits. But are super tasters also able to detect more subtle aromas? Like do they have a wider range of what they can detect?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 2:51
For certain things. Super tasters are something I think we’re still learning about. And what I think is so interesting is that although there are more women’s super tasters than men, and that in fact white men in general have the lowest number of super tasters per group, when we create food and we create cocktails like those are mostly designed with white men as their audience. You know beer or something. When people are creating the flavours of those things, they’re targeting that audience. Men in general are not as good at smelling things as women are. And apparently things like at different points in your menstrual cycle you can taste or pick up more flavours or fewer flavours, if older younger, even if you’re on SSRIs that can affect how you’re perceiving flavour. I mean it’s just fascinating.
Natalie MacLean 3:35
What are they serotonin uplift something? What are they? Anti-depressants. Yes. Okay. Like serotonin or whatever. Zoloft. They can diminish. Okay. And for the same reason can being depressed diminish your sense of smell?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 3:54
Yes, being depressed can diminish your sense of smell and therefore your sense of taste. A lot of people who are depressed lose interest in food. And I think that’s part of the reason. I mean our senses are affected by so many different things. And those senses in turn affect how our eating and drinking and how we can experience those things. It’s hard to separate them out. But I think it’s endlessly fascinating. People who have anosmia who have lost their sense of smell. I think the common idea is that if you’ve lost your sense of smell, you wouldn’t eat that much because you lose so much interest in food. But it turns out that people with anosmia often gain a lot of weight because they’re searching for that flavour that they use to experience and enjoy. They’re trying to get that pleasure out of food. They can’t get any more so they’re eating in order to try and recapture it. But that is also interesting.
Natalie MacLean 4:39
That makes sense. Yeah. So you already mentioned that you know our expectations change our perception of both taste and our enjoyment. You cite an interesting study, a blind tasting a five wines and participants said they enjoyed the one that they were told was the priciest despite the fact that that same wine was in another glass they were told it was less expensive. And a MRI, a brain scan image, even showed the pleasure centre of their brains lighting up more with the pricey bottle. Tell us how our expectations change when we’re told details, by say a sommelier, of the bottle that they’re trying to sell to us in a restaurant and how we might use that strategy at home.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 5:16
I mean perception is so much of flavour. And I can see it myself like if I’m in a restaurant even just to have a sommelier I feel like already increases your expectation of what the wine is going to be like. It increases your anticipation rather than just picking a wine off the list and you know having the waiter come over and open it. Like talking to the person about it, hearing the story about it, this is just creating so much anticipation and expectation and it literally changes the flavour of the wine. In this study that you reference, these people who were undergoing the MRI, tasting the same wine told that one was from a $10 bottle one was from a $90 bottle. Like their pleasure centres in their brains lit up more when they were drinking the $90 bottle of wine than the $10 bottle of wine even though it was the same wine. Like literally like a physical reaction that can be mapped that can be measured, which just shows you that like flavour really is created in the brain. And when you have – this sort of a shortcut actually you can use when you’re you know hosting people – and you’re not quite sure what you’re serving. Like if you hype it up a little, you give it a story, you present something in a certain way, it does this thing where it just creates this kind of expectation for the person who’s going to eat or drink that thing. And they are literally going to enjoy it more.
Natalie MacLean 6:33
Wow. Yeah, you say maybe tell them that the vines were planted on a special hillside or there was only 500 bottles made and that builds the anticipation. I love that. Our minds are so powerful. They create and recreate our experiences. So how can sounds help? You know the preparation of a meal, whether it’s I don’t know coffee grinding versus a microwave beeping. How does that impact us?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 6:58
Well in the same way that a sommelier telling me the story of the three monks up the hillside who made this incredible bottle of wine gets you excited to drink the wine, that happens with food as well. And it’s all about using our other senses right. So the sound of a microwave in the kitchen if you’re in the dining room at a dinner party waiting to be served food and you hear that ping of the microwave, like your expectations take a nosedive. Like you’re much less excited to eat that food. On the other hand, if somebody brings out a big salad, they start tearing up some fresh herbs, and decorating the salad right in front of you, you have all these other cues. You can hear what’s happening. You can smell what’s happening. You can see what’s happening. There are all these freshness cues that are prepping you to really enjoy that salad. When you host a dinner party, you don’t want to be cooking all the time right. You want to be out with your guests and having fun. So you can absolutely prepare all the food ahead of time. Like you don’t actually have to be cooking a lasagna in front of your guests. But I just love the idea that these extra sensory cues. Bring your lasagna out in the table and grinding some fresh black pepper in front of your guests in front of them. Letting them see that little bit of performative aspect that is gonna increase their enjoyment so much. And again, the lasagna is the same lasagna. It’s just that triggering these other cues using those other senses that really helps us enjoy that much more.
Natalie MacLean 8:20
So restaurants have this nailed, with the giant pepper grinders or the parmesan or the even shaving truffles. It’s all getting us ready.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 8:29
Exactly. I think of like restaurants that make guacamole table side. Like there are so many like you know smell cues and sound cues and visual cues. Like if somebody’s making guacamole table side like you’re gonna eat that guacamole. You’re very excited. Like it’s a whole experience.
Natalie MacLean 8:47
Yeah. And you even talk about some restaurants will do things like spritz saffron. Saffron is expensive. It dissipates quickly, I think. But they’ll spritz the plate with it either table side or just before the plate is served. Why is that?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 9:01
Splitting anything I think is like another nice shortcut when it comes to food, because especially if something is being served family style in the middle of the table. People are less likely to be getting all the aromas off it. It feels different. So the idea of sort of creating the right atmosphere or either using a little bit of the juices from whatever you’ve cooked and spraying them into the air, like again that’s triggering anticipation, or just doing anything that is complimentary. One of the ideas I put in the book is like if you’re serving mashed potatoes, you can tie a sprig of rosemary to the serving spoon and then when people pick up the serving spoon it’s sort of like crushes the rosemary a little bit. It brings those aromas into the air. And then you have sort of like multi sensory experience rather than just like mashed potatoes on the plate.
Natalie MacLean 9:46
That’s brilliant. You also talked about like you know ripping basil or whatever or any of these smells really get our gastric juices going. Our saliva, which is really important in our mouths because then you’re liquefying the food. It’s touching more tastebuds. You have a trick. Squeezing limes or lemons on some food because it puts the pH back in balance or I guess it’s just getting your mouth watering and enjoying food more, right?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 10:10
Absolutely. Like any of those aromas, especially when it comes to citrus, like the aromas dissipate very quickly. The volatiles fly off. That’s the end of it. And it’s sort of the difference between store bought orange juice like in a carton and fresh squeezed orange juice. It’s like citrus oils in the skin of any kind of citrus fruit give it like that something extra. It makes it taste completely different. And also you can use those even just like creating a sense experience. The way people would cut up lemons and limes and just plop them in a jug of water. There’s like an aroma that comes in that. Like the taste is not actually that good. Like the flavour is not that interesting to me. It’s like a couple of slices of fruit in a big jug of water. But it is the aromas that make it really appetizing.
Natalie MacLean 10:54
And you even say that some packaging is designed this way. Like I think you mentioned the Mars candy company, makes dove bars, and there’s a flavour seal. Like when you open the package what happens?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 11:04
Packaging is so important when it comes to perception in terms of flavour. Like I could talk about this for hours. Like it affects everything about the way that we eat. The thing you’re referring to in particular is with ice cream. And of course, frozen things don’t have a smell right. You can’t smell something is frozen. But these companies that make ice cream, they will often put perfume some kind of perfume, especially usually a vanilla scent into the open glue of the packaging or under the lid. So when you open it, you can smell what the thing is going to taste like even though the vanilla smell is not connected to. Real vanilla also smells kind of kind of dark and dusty. It smells totally different than an artificial vanilla flavouring. But they are creating that anticipation. And again, they have to add that because you can’t smell ice cream or at least not what is still frozen.
Natalie MacLean 11:53
Right. And you said that it was either Ben or Jerry could not smell so he made sure that chunks of stuff in his ice cream were bigger.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 12:01
One of them. I think it’s Jerry. He has anosmia. He can’t smell. So obviously he can taste very little. And so for him texture became really important. And so that’s why Ben and Jerry’s like that’s what they’re famous for is the chunks of stuff that go in the ice cream. And you’ll notice if you compare Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to other flavours of ice cream, the chunks and Ben and Jerry’s are bigger. Like there’s much more focus on like chewiness and texture then there is another brands. And that’s why. It’s because you have to sort of compensate for that lack of smell with a different sense.
Natalie MacLean 12:35
Love it. You know all this anticipatory stuff reminds me of why those unboxing videos on social media are so popular. I look at them and go there opening a box. But there’s something about it. I don’t know. Our curiosity or what’s inside or I don’t know what it is. But all the authors do it when they get a new book, so I’m going to have to do that. I don’t know.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 12:55
Yeah, you will. People love it.
Natalie MacLean 12:59
So let’s get back to music. How does loud noise or music affect our sense of taste, especially say if we’re in a restaurant?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 13:06
Oh, this is like one of my pet peeves is restaurant noise. And the older I get this becomes like a major peeve. It depresses our other senses. Loud music in the background, if there’s lots of lots of noise, not only is it annoying because you have to shout to your companions, but it really means that you can experience the flavours last. Like it diminishes your sense of flavours and your sense of taste. I remember having an experience in a really wonderful sushi restaurant in San Francisco 15 years ago before I started exploring any of this stuff. And I was eating this piece of incredible yellowtail and I sat there and I close my eyes and I plugged my ears with my fingers and just sat there like chewing because as soon as I would those other senses were alert like I couldn’t taste it as much. I couldn’t get the flavours out of it. And I found that to be true in terms of almost any kind of thing like that. That kind of background noise, it creates stress. If it’s fast, loud music, it’ll make us eat faster. If it’s loud music and we have to shout to our friends, then we get thirstier faster and we drink more. There’s all sorts of ways in which that background noise has not necessarily a negative effect because maybe you want to drink a lot and yell at your friends. No judgement. It can take away your ability to really appreciate like any kind of subtlety of flavour for sure.
Natalie MacLean 14:21
Right. And so then we generally choose fast foods or foods that aren’t as good for us because we’re compensating. We want extra fat, extra salt, extra sweet to match that extra noise that’s in the background.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 14:31
And it’s also like a stress response. When people are feeling under stress, they don’t choose carrot sticks for a snack. They choose chips or chocolate or something like that. So yeah loud music and loud noise does create that sort of stress response in our bodies. And so yeah we order less healthy food.
Natalie MacLean 14:49
You’re talking about stress. Of course, that’s the release of cortisol, the hormone that can suppress taste. So how does that connect maybe with hosting a noisy party at home. Should we serve our best wines first or last? Like are they going to taste the wine at all? Or what should we be doing with the way we serve wines?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 15:08
I mean it really depends on your guests and the party. But one of the scientists I interviewed for this said after the first couple of sips no one is like really tasting the wine. And I do think that’s true. But definitely as the night goes on, people are not really paying attention to the wine. So if there’s like a great bottle of wine that you have, make that the first thing that you serve because that’s when people are the most sober. That’s when people are paying the most attention. Usually conversation is not as rowdy as it might be later on. So if there’s a great wine, I would serve that right up front. And one tip that I did have from somebody who studies wine is she always served two wines at once. She never just serves one, especially if there’s one that she really wants to highlight and call attention to, because she likes giving people something to compare the great wine to. And it helps them figure out what they like and what they’re tasting. So if she has people for dinner party, there’s always two wine glasses. And she always serves two wines at the same time. And of course then you know it also helps spark conversation because people can say, oh I like this one. I like this thing about the other wine. So it’s almost a conversation starter as well. But yes, definitely don’t serve a good bottle of wine at the end of the night. That’s total waste of money.
Natalie MacLean 16:19
I love that tip. Two wines. I’m going to use that. The other thing I would think is that by the end of the night with more alcohol all of our senses dull. Like that’s why if we have too much our speech slurs, we can’t walk straight. So I imagine our sense of smell is diminishing under the weight of alcohol, too.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 16:38
Totally. And also just like we get satiated. Like our receptors like if you’re eating the same thing for a long period of time, like you stopped tasting it a little bit. My sister used to talk about when she was a kid, she had like dessert box in her stomach that like would never be fall in no matter how much dinner she ate. Like there was always room for dessert. And that’s because those sweet receptors are still fresh. You know you haven’t been like bombarding them with sensations all this time. So you know that’s like you’re not maybe physically hungry, but your brain is hungry. Your brain is ready to eat more of something that tastes entirely different.
Natalie MacLean 17:13
Interesting. Yeah. And again with that two wine tip, you also talk about giving people something to do. Why is that?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 17:21
It’s all about comfort, right. It’s about making people comfortable and welcome in your home or at your event. And if you ever have an event, and like maybe you’re a little late getting the drinks out or there’s nothing to eat, like people are literally just standing around like wondering what to do. This is scientifically proven that people are more comfortable when they have something to hold. Like it’s not just about the alcohol – it doesn’t have to be an alcoholic drink – but that holding on to something makes people feel happier and more comfortable. And this effect is even amped up if that thing is warm. Like truly the ideal thing to hold to make somebody feel comfortable is a warm bowl of something. Which might not be practical. But to give some guests something to hold in their hands or something to do. Like I interviewed Alison Roman, the chef and food columnist, for the book. And she says when people come to her house, she will either give them a drink or point them to the cocktail making station – let them mix their own, which also gives them something to do – or give them like a tiny task like sorting out herbs. You know picking the good leaves off some stems or something like that just to help people ease into the evening. And I think it’s really nice because you want people to feel comfortable, especially like in your home. You want people to feel good. And either giving them something warm to hold or drink or something to do like it helps make helps them feel better immediately.
Natalie MacLean 18:44
I love that. Oh my goodness, my dinner parties are never going to be the same again after this conversation. Thank you. And so here’s a vital tip. How do we get rid of people at the end of the night if they’re staying too long?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 18:57
One of the funniest things I learned in the course of this book was that the way to have a good party is to have fewer chairs than there are people, so some people have to stand and like move around and mingle and people don’t just like sit into the chair. Like sit drinking and not make any effort. I thought that was a great party tip. I’m often a fan of just saying like that’s it for me go home. But I understand most people don’t want to do that. But a lot of it comes down to the music, you know to the playlist. Like what kind of music you play. At the beginning of a party, you can play songs that make people feel comfortable, songs they recognize, songs in C major can make people feel good and feel happy.
Natalie MacLean 19:35
Why C major? Is that a low tone or a high tone? Is that happy or sad?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 19:41
I don’t know why C major. Like a lot of stuff in this book about music and how it can affect everything from pulling out a certain flavour in a glass of wine to making people feel more energized or making people feel ready to lead a party. And I don’t think anyone actually really knows why. There’s a lot of associations that we have with music and with sound. That things that sound sweet or sound warm or sound cold. I don’t think we actually have an explanation for why those things are true. But you can definitely develop a playlist that makes people feel more comfortable in the beginning of the night and like ready to go home at the end of the night. But I don’t think it is it.
Natalie MacLean 20:21
Heavy metal at the end of the night.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 20:23
That would drive me out of the house fast. Turning up in volume. Also, you can do this with lighting to you know to make people feel comfortable. At a dinner party or at a regular party, you have like a lot of candles, you have the lighting turned to exactly the right dimness to make people you know feel comfortable and look good or whatever. And at the end of the night, you could like turn it up a lot. And then people are like okay time to go.
Natalie MacLean 20:48
Time to go. Yeah, so you mentioned restaurants do that subtly, like Jen Agg, Toronto restauranteur. She might adjust the lights seven or eight times over the course of an evening so that diners don’t even recognize what’s happening or that the light is shifting.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 21:01
Exactly. Like she is like a lighting expert. I asked her like oh do you think candles are important. And she said it’s not that I think candles are important. Its candles are important. A good restaurant must have candles because it creates this lovely, warm, welcoming cosy atmosphere. People look good. People feel good. Like they are essential. I’d actually after I talked to her I started using candles a lot more in my own house. Tat’s just for myself.
Natalie MacLean 21:27
I always feel they’re tribal. But the candles remind me of sort of gathering around almost the tribal campfire. But also they seem to almost come closest to holding a warm bowl of something. That comforting thing that you mentioned earlier. So I don’t know, just has resonances of that for me.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 21:44
Yeah, I hadn’t even thought of that connection but they do actually give off heat like they’re literally warm in a way that you know recessed lighting or something isn’t. So yeah I think that’s a great point actually.
Natalie MacLean 21:54
Cool. Okay. So how would a high pitch song tune change our perception of say Pinot Noir, which is already you know fairly racy, acidic wine. How would that change?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 22:06
Okay. So first of all, I should say these things. They can change person to person. And they can change you know depending on the kind of music exactly what you’re listening to, the kind of wine you’re drinking. And that it is so much fun to play around with this stuff. That like to really drink a glass of wine. Pinot Noir for a lot of people playing like a high pitched musical will pull out more acid. It’ll taste more acidic to them. And like playing something lower notes will make it feel more full bodied. But this is also something great to do at a party. Is to give people a glass of wine and then change the music. Change different kinds of songs. You can even just play like musical tones. It doesn’t have to be an entire song or a real piece of music. And just ask people to taste the wine again with each noise. And see how the wine actually tastes different. Like how the flavours are different. If it feels more more acidic or more fruity or more oaky. Because the music playing really can change that flavour in your mouth. I think it’s just like it’s a fun thing to do to entertain yourself. And it’s a great thing to do at a dinner party, too.
Natalie MacLean 23:07
All kinds of dinner party activities.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 23:10
You would think I host a lot of dinner parties, but I really don’t. I have a lot of great tips for them.
Natalie MacLean 23:15
Yeah well. Whenever you do your guests are going to be extremely busy. And you say that music has more of an impact on complex drinks than simple ones like coffee or wine for example. Being more complex. Why is that?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 23:30
You’re drinking something simple, just like sugar water or something, there’s just like not that many different threads. There’s nothing really to pull out except sweet. Like sweet taste you know, there’s no complexity. And music itself is pretty complex. And these different tones and pitches of the kind of music you can hear. Whether it’s fast or slow. Whether it’s like a brass band that highlights the umami taste or whatever. It’s just impossible to do that with something that only has one note. And wine is like such a good way to play around with this other sense because it’s so complex and it has so much going on. Like you really can identify the components of a glass of wine by changing the music that’s playing in the background.
Natalie MacLean 24:11
And you even talked to a coffee expert because it has similar complexities, having more than 400 flavour compounds. So music can really tease out some more than others?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 24:24
Yeah and you can sort of use it to like fix the thing that you’re serving. You know if you go into the book it will give you all this in lots of detail. But if you made something like a cake and it’s not quite sweet enough like you can kind of music pulls out the sweetness and highlights. Like Mariah Carey. Yeah exactly. And something will literally taste more sweet. Like you can almost compensate in certain ways by changing the playlist rather than throwing the cake away and having to begin again.
Natalie MacLean 24:51
Oh yeah. Okay. Cool. And so noise also has a special impact when we’re flying. So the engine. What happens then? And how should we change our food and drink choices in response?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 25:04
I love this because I also fly a lot. And I think it’s really interesting. Airplane food in general I think it’s pretty interesting. The way it’s created. I mean as a concept I guess more than a gastronomic point of view. Any kind of mass produced food. I think it’s like it’s kind of interesting in a certain way. So when you’re on a plane and you have this jet noise, and you know there’s lots of engine noise around you, most of your modalities are suppressed. So the way that you taste things – sweet, sour, bitter – your ability to recognize those things is suppressed because of the noise. But the one case that is actually accentuated and emphasized is umami. So you can taste umami more when you’re on a plane than you can when you’re on the ground. Crunchiness also. Your like sense of crunchiness like also is accentuated on the plane. So I even know somebody who like gets a bag of pretzels and crumbles it up and puts it over their meal like their main meal just to add that thing because the crunchiness is like accentuated. That seems like a bridge too far. But you know a lot of people out there probably will order a tomato juice or Bloody Mary on the plane and they would like never order that in a bar or make it at home.
Natalie MacLean 26:15
That’s what I do. Tomato juice all the time. Yeah.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 26:19
Right but like you probably don’t drink tomato juice every morning in your house. Its bizarre. Tomato has so much umami in it. And so you can taste it more on the plane. More than a gin and tonic. More than a beer more than a glass of wine. So we tend to order things like yeah like Bloody Marys on the plane because it tastes better. It tastes more. And the other things we order like our ability to taste those is diminished. But I think it’s just fascinating and we don’t know why but it’s interesting.
Natalie MacLean 26:46
Yeah. And even you say you know order maybe pasta or cheese like with lots of umami. I don’t know. Again, just stretching the connections here, but maybe it’s the low engine growl and then the savoury meaty dark growl of umami. I don’t know. Somehow.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 27:02
I don’t know but absolutely having something with like with cheese or tomato sauce. Yes, anything that is sort of mushroom, anything that is sort of umami heavy is going to taste better on the plane than something that is low in umami. So yeah that’s definitely a recommendation.
Natalie MacLean 27:15
Now this really surprised me. You say that we can tell the difference between hot and cold liquids by sound alone when they’re being poured. How on earth do we do that?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 27:26
Again I do not know. Like it’s true. And if you do it yourself like you can actually hear the difference. Another fun dinner party trick. There are a lot of these in the book because I think people tend to enjoy this this kind of thing. And people can even hear the difference sometimes between red wine and white wine being poured into a glass which I find also like amazing.
Natalie MacLean 27:48
I’ll try that. And you even say Champagne versus Prosecco which I would understand more because you know there’s more pressure in Champagne, so the bubbles will be more urgent or louder or something and Prosecco has fewer bars of pressure. So I don’t know.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 28:04
That one’s more easily explained. Yeah but people like people – not everybody for sure – but like a lot of people can actually tell the difference when they hear it. So yeah.
Natalie MacLean 28:12
Wow. And now speaking of bubbly, you note that a flute glass – those really slender, tall glasses that our traditional glassware for bubbly – affects our perception of the bubbles. What happens in our headspace so to speak? What’s happening at the top of the glass?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 28:30
Actually, I will maybe read this out loud because I brought it up. I mean it’s in the book but it’s like it’s a lot of stuff that I want to make sure that I get it right. All right, so with the flute I’d love to see the bubbles rising to the surface and the small rim kind of retards the dissipation of the bubbles, which is a good thing. But that same narrow rim when you’re bringing your nose down to it it builds up co2 like in the headspace. And co2 enhances sourness and it suppresses sweetness. So if you think of something like a can of soda, which has a lot of co2 in it, you can drink it when it’s cold and it’s like fizzy. But then if it sits and it gets warm and kind of flat like it becomes super sweet like unpalatably sweet. Which just shows you that like that co2 is suppressing the sweetness for you. And yeah as you pointed out like a sparkling wine like Champagne or Cava has five, six bars of pressure. Higher pressure means that you keep the co2 in the glass for longer so it stays bubbly for longer. But Prosecco has three or four bars of pressure, so it goes flat faster. So one of the scientists I interviewed about this she said basically flutes are people who are drinking cheaper wines and they want the bubbles to stay around for longer. But then you can’t smell the wine. You can’t really get your nose into the flute and the pleasure of the wine comes from the smelling it and not just looking at the bubbles. And most of the people I talk to you actually said like Champagne glasses. The coupe bubbles disappear too fast. With the flute, you can’t smell it. Use a white wineglass but it’s something I’m sure that your listeners already know. Because I know they’re all, they’re all wine experts. But yeah in general like they everyone I talked to said throw away the Champagne flute. It’s a waste of money.
Natalie MacLean 30:01
Yeah, I’m a fan of white wine glass. I do love to swirl and smell because it’s still wine. Fizzy wine but still wine. So, absolutely. You know even the shape of a table in a restaurant will change our dining experience. I found this fascinating. What happens say with square shaped tables versus round tables?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 30:23
What you’ll notice is especially if you wander into like a coffee shop. You know the way coffee shops do business is getting people in and getting people out. They do not want somebody sitting at a table with their laptop ordering like a single espresso and staying there for four hours. They you know they depend on like business right. High turnover. So the tables in a coffee shop will often be square. They’ll have like sharp edges. While if you go to a cocktail bar, most of those tables you’ll notice are going to be round, which encourages people to stay longer. Because they want you to stay longer at a cocktail bar. They want you to order lots of expensive cocktails and spend all your money. Shape is something I talk about a lot in the book because it really affects not just flavour but yes like our enjoyment and our comfort levels. In general, just as when you walk into a party and if somebody had to do a warm bowl to hold you would feel comfortable, round things make us feel better and more comfortable and more likely to linger. So the shapes of those tables in those two places like they’re really there on purpose. Like those sharp edges are to encourage you to move along and not linger. While a round table in a cocktail bar is there to get you to stay all night long.
Natalie MacLean 31:31
Because you even say like sharp things – whether it’s corners of tables or even something sharp on our plate – we’ll adjust it just off North so that it’s not pointing right at us or whatever. Sharp means danger usually. Knives and bangs and whatever else. Claws.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 31:49
Exactly. Yeah. We’re always trying to be comfortable and we’re always trying to be safe. And so yes avoiding sharp. Pointy things seems to be not good. Yeah, stay away. So we try to avoid those. But on the other hand, those sharp and pointy things they’re also a signifier of flavour of. Like if you look at certain kinds of sweets. Like a sour candy might be more likely to be like a square shape. Like a Starburst or something that has a little punch has you know angularity to it a little sharpness. While something sweet is much more likely to be round. Like the shapes really are sort of telling us what the flavour is going to be. What the taste is going to be.
Natalie MacLean 32:27
Oh my goodness. And then a square versus a round glass. How did that change the taste of whiskey?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 32:33
Well, roundedness for most of us it calls out sweetness. So like a dessert served in a round plate, we’re going to perceive that as about 15% sweeter than a dessert served on a square plate. Roundness means sweet. It makes us think of sweet. It makes this taste sweet. And so that’s why so many of our glasses are round you know to make us taste the sweetness in juice or in soda or in all these different kinds of things. So if you are trying to accentuate the sweet flavours in something, a round glass is great. Or if you are trying to like avoid this sweetness like if you’re trying to have a whiskey you’re trying to get to like the deep dark heart of it. If you serve in an angled glass and a square glass, it’s going to have a different taste. Like you’re going to experience a less of the sweetness and more of the other tastes more the other flavours.
Natalie MacLean 33:22
The more peaty, smoky, or as you say darker tastes perhaps.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 33:25
Natalie MacLean 33:29
Cool. And you said that we actually will reduce our intake by about 20% or up to 20% with harder textured foods and smaller bites of foods like Crostini versus a bigger serving of food.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 33:43
Yeah, texture is so important. That’s something I really didn’t know much about before I started researching this book is like how important texture is when it comes to food and also drinks. But in the thing you’re referring to, basically the more you chew on something, the more satiety you get from it. The more it feels filling. The more it feels satisfying. And that one of the ways that people have experimented with reducing the amount somebody eats is by giving them food that is literally harder to chew. I feel like one of the things about our modern life is that a lot of our food is like prepackaged it’s almost pre-digested like a smoothie. A smoothie is like how you get your vegetables or your fruits. Like in a smoothie or even like peanut butter comes in a little packet or pre-processed like chicken nuggets. Exactly, it really feels like that. You know white bread is soft like you know falls apart in your mouth. So if you’re looking to slow down how you eat or to get more satiety from the food on your plate, an easy way to do that is just put more texture in the food. Like use a kind of rice that requires more chewing or a whole grain bread. These may seem obvious but like literally the more you chew, the less you eat.
Natalie MacLean 35:03
Wow. And is that because okay it slows us down but it also takes time for the stomach to signal we’re full. You know we’re not wolfing it all down. Pre-digested food. We’re taking our time and therefore we get the signal with less food already in us?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 35:18
Totally. And think about this like a meal replacement shake right. Like you chug it down in like four minutes. Like your lunch is finished. And like it does your brain has not yet registered that you’re full. It’s just like this weird sort of thing that requires no effort on your part, no chewing, no hardly any digestion. Well, if you sat down to like a big salad or something that we’ve had like whole grains or even just chicken that has not been use the example of the nugget like torn apart and then packed back together, it will make you feel more full. It takes you longer to eat it. And I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s a nicer experience all around.
Natalie MacLean 35:56
Oh, sure. And even some of those meal replacement companies now have bars that you have to chew as opposed to the liquid drinks for that reason, right?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 36:04
I think so. Yeah. Like there’s just something that feels more satisfying about really chewing and eating something than just about like sucking it down and it’s gone. And then you’re like what do I do with the rest of my lunch hour?
Natalie MacLean 36:16
Yes. Okay. So texture again. When we’re shopping for wine, how can touch help or fool us? Like with say heavier bottles or the punts, the little indents in the bottom of the bottle.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 36:27
Weight in general when it comes to serving vessels like a wine bottle or even a bowl, that is correlated with quality in our brains. So there has been experiments done where people had like a sort of a banquet dinner and some people had sort of like lightweight, cheapish feeling cutlery and some people had three times as heavy cutlery. And the people who had the heavier cutlery enjoyed their meal so much more and they thought it was much more premium than the people who had the lightweight cutlery. So if you want to make something like kind of make something taste better and make the flavours better and make the person eating it think that it’s more expensive, put it in a heavy vessel. Like yoghurt in a heavier bowl will taste more creamy and better and more expensive than you have like a plastic container. It’s just the way we think. So when it comes to something like wine, the heaviness of the bottle is also an indicator of quality. A punt in the bottom is sort of a cheap way of figuring out if the bottle is expensive. Maybe you know this better than me, as far as I could find there was like no reason for the punt except as an indicator of like we have extra money. This is expensive. So we’re going to use more glass. But people said oh maybe it’s good for dispersing sediment or maybe it’s good for storage. But I haven’t actually been able to confirm why the punt exists. Do you know?
Natalie MacLean 37:43
I don’t, other than of course some servers use it. They put their thumb there in restaurants to serve the bottle so their hands aren’t all over the bottle because we want to show the label even as you’re pouring. Hypothesis one. Hypothesis two is just I know punts are important sometimes for the pressure inside the bottle, but I think that’s more for bubbly. So I don’t know if they make the structure of the glass stronger. But that’s something I’d like to know as well. So a little piece of homework there.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 38:13
Yes. If you find the answer, tell me. I would love to know because I’ve talked to like lots of wine experts for this book. They all different theories. No one had like a verifiable reason. But like because it costs more money to create the punt, that wine is probably going to cost more which you know correlates to how much we enjoy it. Labels, of course I’m sure all your listeners know this, hugely important. And if you have a label that is embossed or raised in a certain way that there’s like some kind of texture to it, you’re more likely to pick up that bottle and to feel that label. And many studies have shown that from supermarkets to wine stores or pharmacies once we pick something off the shelf we’re more likely to buy it.
Natalie MacLean 38:52
Because we’re involved with it. Yeah.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 38:55
We’re involved with it. Or like even if the way if somebody’s wearing like a velvet shirt, you might go up in like stroke their arm. Like we’re just drawn to touching those kinds of things I think. And so like I think that’s a great way to make people pick up more bottles of your wine. To make a label that like it looks like it would feel good to touch it.
Natalie MacLean 39:12
Absolutely. There’s a California wine that I just had recently and it has sort of like a velvet label. And I couldn’t stop petting it. It’s like this is kind of I don’t know. This is weird. It felt beautiful though. And before we love heavier bottles. I should just say that it has been a trend in the wine industry to signal quality with these heavy bottles. But they have a tremendous downside impact on the environment. You know a case of wine 12 bottles can weigh 40 pounds on average and only half of that is the liquid. It’s the biggest single footprint that wine has on the environment is the packaging and then shipping that glass. Plus of course there’s a shortage of the type of sand used to make glass. So there are some reviewers who are starting to comment in tasting notes this isn’t in a heavy bottle. Come on guys like get with it. At least reduce the heaviness or find different packaging to that’s more environmentally friendly.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 40:09
That is so interesting to me. I think that’s fascinating. But you’re right because we have the association of weight with quality. I mean that’s why like no matter how good the wine in the box is, people are not going to think it is as good as wine in the bottle.
Natalie MacLean 40:24
Yeah, Chateau 2 X 4.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 40:28
Like when you talk about the core versus screw top. When I talked earlier about the auditory cues that make us anticipate something, like the sound of the cork coming out of the bottle, you’re going to enjoy that wine more than if somebody unscrews the cap. Like because those sounds signal quality or lack of quality to us no matter how fair or unfair that is. So I totally understand that. Like you know people would be reluctant to stop packaging their wine in heavy bottles because there is a real association for the wine drinker with quality and heaviness.
Natalie MacLean 40:56
There is. And conversely, it’s been a hard road for premium wines to get into box formats, especially bag in box, because they’re still that – got one more for you – Cardboarddeaux. Like that cheap image on the box. It’s just it’s really hard to signal that.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 41:15
It’s. Sorry, can I just ask you a question? You said especially bag in box. Is there a box wine that doesn’t have a bag inside?
Natalie MacLean 41:21
Yes. Now they’ve got tetra packs. I’m thinking. And they’ve inert packaging that doesn’t affect the taste of the wine. There’s also now bottles that are in the bottle shape but they’re made from paper or cardboard. They’re really freaky. And there’s even bottles now that are thin and they’re cardboard and you can fit them through traditional mail slots. So you can mail your wine. I don’t know if there are regulations. I’m sure there’s regulations on mailing alcohol, but package wise they can fit through the thin mail slots of mailboxes and that sort of thing. A full bottle.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 42:00
That’s blowing my mind. I never imagined such a thing.
Natalie MacLean 42:04
That’s the packaging innovation. Aluminium cans I think are among the best environmentally because most aluminium that’s circulating in the world has been around for 10 years. So it’s been recycled and recycled and recycled. Whereas Styrofoam isn’t and lasts one thousand years. You can’t even destroy it. So you know a lot of wine is shipped with styrofoam inserts. So yeah welcome to the packaging show, folks.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 42:34
I think packaging is also interesting. There’s a lot of stuff about packaging in the book. But you’re right about like aluminium being the most easily recycled thing and therefore the best thing to buy. And I even thought I’ve always been an adherent of drinking beer out of a bottle rather than a can. I don’t like drinking things out of cans, but not for quality assurance reasons. Because it feels to be more you know expensive or quality to drink something out of glass and it does drink it out of a aluminium. But I started buying more cans than bottles now because of that recycling reason. And then I just pour it into a glass.
Natalie MacLean 43:09
Absolutely. And of course cans are lighter to ship. They don’t expend as much fuel fossil fuels to ship them. But also I’ve heard that 90% of wine bottles are not recycled. That glass isn’t actually getting recycled. I don’t know if we don’t have the capacity for it or it’s too expensive to recycle it in those molten furnaces where they create glass. But yeah, glass is not a good thing when it comes to wine bottles or wine. So you also said that food and drink labelled organic or Fairtrade gives us a perception that there’s actually fewer calories or it’s better for us. In wine, the craze is for low sugar wines but low sugar can still have just as many calories because calories come from two sources sugar and alcohol. So what’s happening here? It’s just the health claims or better for you claims are just changing our perception of the entire product?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 44:01
They absolutely are. One of the scientists I talked to who studies this said that the way to get people not to buy something is to put a label on it that says healthy. People would just avoid anything as good for you or healthy. Like it just turns people off because they don’t think it’s going to taste good. But for some reason we associate words like organic or all natural with healthier not just for reasons of you know pesticides or things like that, but we think it’s you know lower in calories when it gets lower in sugar. There was one study where people thought that a pack of Oreos labelled organic were like lower calorie than regular Oreos. Or they think food that is low salt has fewer calories, but salt doesn’t have any calories. It’s just like the perceptions created by these words. And you can totally see that. To even go back to packaging for a second, like there’s a real trend in food packaging now to make the packaging clear whether it’s like a protein bar or a box of granola with a clear panel on the front. Like there’s this idea that transparency means healthy. And all the various ways we can interpret that word.
Natalie MacLean 45:07
Right. Just like green used to work. Maybe it still does. Feels fresh and healthy.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 45:11
Exactly. Exactly like that. Yeah. So those like associations are again they’re all in our brain. And if you read you really have to train yourself to read the label if you’re looking for food to fit a specific profile because the words of the front of it are meaningless in terms of like things like you know calories or sweetness really. Organic definitely has a meaning but I also think it’s like pretty fluid meaning and people use that word a lot. Often when it comes to wine in a way that does not feel consistent I guess.
Natalie MacLean 45:44
Exactly. Because there’s organically grown grapes. It’s different from organically made wine. In the winery, there still can be lots of chemicals and additives and all the rest of it. And the other thing you notice that when we get one of these products that we think is healthier for us, sometimes we compensate by eating or drinking more of it. I know people do with the low alcohol wines, oh I can have an extra glass or whatever. And I guess up to a certain extent you know you want to just have a certain amount of alcohol by volume units. But I think we often overcompensate when we perceive that the product is better for us.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 46:17
100%. And you know people should eat or drink as much as they want. Like you know there’s no value attached to eating or drinking less or more. But yeah I think there absolutely is something that happens. People don’t want to feel deprived is something. That I learned when I was researching this book. And that’s sort of where the texture comes back into it. That like if you have something that you eat very quickly like because it’s smooth it doesn’t require a lot of chewing like you often feel sort of deprived. Like where’s my meal. Like I don’t feel full. While if you’re chewing through something, even if that thing has like fewer calories or like you know lower fat or lower sugar, if it takes you a while to get through it and you’re doing a lot of chewing, you feel that sense of you don’t feel deprived. You feel satiated. And that’s like honestly the most important thing. Like people are not good at feeling deprived or sort of shortchanged, which I think is why they might have two packets of a low calorie thing or two glasses of the low alcohol line. Like we don’t want to feel cheated in any way.
Natalie MacLean 47:12
That’s true. But my mom was on and off Weight Watchers diet meal plan as I was growing up. And my favourite memories was she would buy the tray, the large tray of Weight Watchers brownies and together we’d eat it all.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 47:27
Exactly right. Exactly. Yes. Precisely.
Natalie MacLean 47:32
Kind of defeated the purpose. But I was also fascinated, you said sensory or smell aroma marketing is increasingly important in fields outside of food and drink. So tell us what Lowe’s the hardware store is doing. And Singapore Airlines.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 47:45
This to me is so amazing. Like if you walk into a Lowe’s and probably Home Depot too like any of those sort of big box DIY stores, you’ll often smell like freshly sawn wood. But there’s nobody in the shop who is sawing wood. Like there’s no heap of freshly sawn wood. There’s no lumber there’s nothing like that. It’s just gives you the impression of wholesomeness of DIY of like something fresh and people doing something that feels very surfacey. And it’s just scent marketing. And Singapore Airlines was the same. Actually a lot of airlines I think do this. Now scent marketing is a huge industry. But Singapore Airlines they created a signature scent. They sprayed it in their planes, in their lounges, on the flight attendants, like on the face towels. Like it was light so not something overpowering. But definitely the sort of thing where once you smelled it you would be like oh right Singapore Airlines. And you know there’s a lot of hotels, like a Westin Hotel will smell like every other Westin hotel in the world because they have developed like a particular signature scent and they use it and candles or essential oils or whatever. And just like triggers a certain impression. I don’t know.
Natalie MacLean 48:54
That’s fascinating. Yeah. And how did aroma marketing backfire when I think it was some bakeries tried to entice customers with pumping out the smell of freshly baked cookies?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 49:05
Yeah, I thought this was great because I always think of the example of like a Cinnabon. You walk into a mall, if it still exists. Like if you smell that Cinnabon, you smell the Cinnabon and you’re like for a second you’re like oh my god I must have a cinnamon roll. If you smell it for a while longer like (a) you stop noticing the smell and (b) the craving kind of goes away. So it’s that same thing we talked about earlier about how your receptors get dulled. Like they get used to the smell and to the aroma. So some supermarkets did an experiment where they sort of pumped the smell from the bakery like of doughnuts or cakes into the air, thinking that customers would then go and like buy a lot more of these products.
But what happened is that like some people did. But when you’re in the supermarket you’re there for more than just like two minutes. You’re shopping. You’re doing all your things. And after two minutes that sort of like smell that attraction and that aroma, it kind of wears off for you a little bit. And also you know you have more time to sort of think like do I really want a doughnut you know or do I want to just like buy this bag of apples?. So it’s like a very delicate thing to play with. I think scent. Everyone’s familiar with experience of going to a restaurant. Somebody’s wearing too much cologne or too much perfume and like you can’t taste your food anymore. Like it ruins the experience. So I think scents and aromas are so interesting and they’re really fun to play with but like you’re on a knife’s edge if you use too much or too little.
Natalie MacLean 50:24
They’re primal. And another nasty smell you noted some company scented their bills with man sweat. Why did they do that? What were they trying to achieve?
Nell McShane Wulfhart 50:35
Maybe a utility company. I can’t remember what kind of bills they were sending out. But they sent their bills in the mail to customers who owed them money. And there was some experiment where they sprayed them with sort of like an almost like a testosterones smell. Like essentially man sweat. And supposedly the people who received those bills that had been sprayed with this man sweat paid the bills more promptly than people who received scentless bills. Because maybe they were envisioning some like hulking, sweaty man coming to the door to collect the money. There’s something about that scent was like triggering them to take a certain kind of action. I mean it would be manipulated really. Apparently it worked. I just encourage people to think more about perception versus reality. Like these things are really fun to play with. So I encourage people to go out and do that.
Natalie MacLean 51:24
It’s fun to do. And it’s a richer life I think. You know I used to feel guilty writing about wine. It’s like I’m not a doctor. I’m not saving anybody. I’m helping the helpless rich or whatever. But we work hard for pleasure. And so do the people who read us. You want to heighten those experiences as much as you can to just simply enjoy life. Make it worth living.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 51:46
100%. I like to maximize pleasure and the things we get pleasure out of. It’s always a goal of mine you know. Why not.
Natalie MacLean 51:52
Exactly. And then we don’t end up seeking too much pleasure because we’re getting satisfaction from what we have and what we’re enjoying. And so that doesn’t lead us down another path of abuse, overeating, over drinking, that sort of thing. All right. Thanks, Nell. Let’s say goodbye for now and we’ll be in touch.
Nell McShane Wulfhart 52:11
Thank you so much for having me. Bye.
Natalie MacLean. 52:13
Take care. Bye bye.