A KitKat tour

Wasabi, azuki sandwich, matcha green tea, ichimi chilli, purple sweet potato and hojicha tea KitKats. The idea behind some of these flavours is Nestlé’s capitalisation on the market for regional souvenirs and gifting in Japan – they produce KitKat flavours that are unique to particular areas and cities in the country, so that visitors can take those regional KitKats back home as gifts. That hojicha tea KitKat, for example, is supposed to be reminiscent of the tea that’s produced by Itohkyuemon in Uji City, Kyoto, for use in temples and shrines. The wasabi one is for Shizuoka prefecture, and the ichimi chilli one is from Nagano. And they were all very enjoyable, I must say.

I wonder how well this concept would work in other countries – what regional ingredient specialties would lend themselves well to chocolate flavours? It would be pretty entertaining if you could do that for Protected/Controlled Designation of Origin food items. Roquefort cheese KitKat. Bordeaux wine KitKat. Prosciutto di San Daniele KitKat. Tennessee whiskey KitKat. Melton Mowbray pork pie KitKat. Ouzo KitKat. Manchego cheese KitKat. Is it just me, or is this sounding kind of like an awesome idea?

Chocolate eating styles, as defined by SCIENCE

I recently read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss (a New York Times journalist who previously worked in Pakistan, but when his colleague David Rohde was kidnapped, the NYT transferred Moss to the safer beat of reporting on the food industry). The book provides fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) insight into the research and testing that goes into manipulating the various sensory aspects of food, and into developing food products with just the right amounts of salt, sugar and/or fat to make them incredibly alluring. Every variable in the eating experience can be fine-tuned to make food that people feel compelled not only to eat, but to eat lots of. For example, food scientists have worked out the exact amount of pressure a corn chip should break at in order to produce chips of an ideal crispness and crunchiness to maximise the enjoyment the average consumer experiences while eating (and I assume that if you buy some Doritos and eat them, you’re experiencing the outcome of that research).

Honing foods to optimise their appeal to consumers obviously requires the characterisation of many aspects of both the food and the consumers. Which is presumably how this paper, ‘Characterisation of chocolate eating behaviour’, came about, and which asks the question:

So, like, how do people eat chocolate?

You know, apart from, like, putting it in their mouth and somehow getting it down their gullet.

Turns out people fall into three distinct groups when it comes to how they eat chocolate:

1. the fast chewers
2. the thorough chewers
3. the suckers

The researchers found this out by giving the 40 study participants each two samples of milk chocolate. The samples were the same in ingredient composition and were similar in how viscous they would be when melted, but differed slightly in some textural aspects. I love this bit of the paper where the researchers say “For confidentiality reasons no further detail concerning sample composition can be provided.” So manipulation of the texture of the chocolate was a key variable being investigated in the study, but you’re being coy about how the texture differed between the two chocolate samples being tested? Well, one researcher does work for Mars and the study was funded by Mars, so omg u guyz this is a Mars chocolate formulation secret!

Anyway, the researchers have deigned to go into detail about how people ate the chocolate samples. Eating behaviours were characterised using surface electromyography (electrodes placed on the skin surface that record muscle activity) and electroglottography, which uses electrodes to record the activity of the glottis, i.e. the vocal cords. Electroglottography was originally developed for use in speech therapy, but has been re-purposed here to learn more about how and when people swallow.

The results were, firstly, that Chocolate A (whatever that was) was significantly preferred to Chocolate B (whatever that was). Participants considered Chocolate A to coat the mouth more and be softer at first bite (so hey, maybe you’re eating Chocolate A these days whenever you eat a Mars chocolate product). In terms of how the chocolate was eaten, each participant apparently had a unique way of eating the chocolate – no two participants were identical in terms of chew rate, total chewing time, number of swallows, how long it took them to get to the point of their last swallow, etc.

Cluster analysis was then performed on this information (this grouped people so that their eating behaviour was more similar to other people in the same group than people in other groups) which gives us the three styles of chocolate eating: fast chewing, thorough chewing, sucking.

If you do the cluster analysis for the data obtained for the two chocolate types separately, the same people still fall into the same eating behaviour groups, suggesting that people’s chocolate eating style is consistent across different types of chocolate. We can’t know this for sure from this study, since we don’t know how similar or different the two chocolate samples were (just that they were both milk chocolate), but maybe chocolates that are more obviously different would be eaten differently (I think my eating behaviour for a piece of milk chocolate versus a piece of, say, 80% dark chocolate is different, but maybe I’m just some weird anomaly).

And to finish, an excerpt from the paper:

“From a wider perspective, it has been shown that variation in bite size and oral processing time impacts on food intake. ‘Slow’ eating has also been shown to decrease food intake and result in increased satiety. If variation in chocolate eating behaviour exists then this could also impact on chocolate intake levels which in turn may have health implications.”

If we make those assumptions, this presents rather a quandary to Mars: Chocolate A was much preferred by participants compared to Chocolate B, but participants also took longer to eat Chocolate A, which might mean that people would eat less of it. What do you do, Mars? What do you do? (Presumably some more testing and then whatever option seems most likely to give them the best profits.)

A voice for diners-out

Beating Michael Pollan to the “we should probably try to eat a little less meat” punch by about 130 years. From the 8 June 1878 issue of The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals and whose articles these days are more along the lines of ‘Effectiveness of intermittent pneumatic compression in reduction of risk of deep vein thrombosis in patients who have had a stroke (CLOTS 3): a multicentre randomised controlled trial’.

Rituals and the eating experience

I was going to write about a paper I found while trawling the research databases, but it turns out that it was one of those papers that must’ve been seriously pushed by the research centre it came out of, the research centre must’ve had some serious media influence (two of the authors are from the Harvard Business School, so I guess that would explain a few things) and there must’ve been a reasonably high-profile media release, because it turns out that all sorts of journalism outlets have already covered it. You can also figure out what the media release must’ve said, since basically all the media outlets’ articles start out with setting the scene by describing the rituals associated with eating birthday cake.

Anyway, the paper – ‘Rituals Enhance Consumption‘ – describes the experience-enhancing effects of performing some ritualistic steps prior to eating something. For more details, have a read of the NYT’s coverage of the research (I like their article because they didn’t go too churnalistic by regurgitating the same old birthday cake example).

I wonder if the effects observed in the study might be attributed to some extent to mindfulness and to the experimental situation. Going through the steps would cause people to focus more on the experience overall, and the mindfulness research literature would definitely suggest that that would enhance the overall eating experience and make people appreciate the food more. Furthermore, being asked to go through these novel ritualistic steps in the context of an experiment might cause people to focus on the experience and therefore enjoy it more, but if these ritualistic steps are just something that you do kind of mindlessly in every day life – because they’re such a part of your routine that you don’t even think about them – then they might not have those same beneficial effects.

Whatever the case, I personally think I shall adopt the “ritual” of breaking chocolate bars while they’re still in their wrappers, like the research participants were asked to do. My brain just considers that to somehow be a generally pleasing tactile thing to do.

Perception at first bite

Researchers come up with rather clever sleights of hand in the name of investigating things, especially in the realm of food perception.

Want to know if the first bite of something can set the tone for subsequent eating? Want to know if that first bite influences the perception of subsequent bites? Want to investigate the ways in which it’s possible to influence someone’s eating experience just by establishing particular expectations? Just make a cylinder of chocolate ice cream (but of course?!) and use theobromine (the bitter compound found in cacao) to change the intensity of bitterness encountered as research participants eat their way down the cylinder. Slightly ingenious, right?

The researchers made each ice cream cylinder so that it could be consumed in six bites, but then they varied the levels of bitterness that would be experienced from bite to bite. For example, in one condition, the first two bites of the ice cream cylinder had a low bitterness intensity, the second two bites had a high bitterness intensity, and the third two bites had a low bitterness intensity again. Some cylinders had low bitterness intensity all the way through, some had high all the way through, some had a mixture of low and high, and some had an averaged bitterness intensity.

The researchers found that when the first bites had low bitterness intensity, that particular ice cream cylinder was perceived as less bitter overall, and ratings of maximum bitterness intensity were reduced. So low bitterness in the initial bites means the item is perceived as less bitter overall than it otherwise would be, and high bitterness in the initial bites means the item is perceived as more bitter overall than it otherwise would be.

I’m not sure, however, of how to apply this sleight of hand in potentially useful or practical ways in just everyday life. The next time you make a grapefruit tart and the filling somehow ends up being really bitter, just make some more filling that’s sweeter and pour it on top and instruct eaters to just take a bit off the uppermost extremities for their first mouthful? Hmm, well… nonetheless, it’s interesting to know a little bit more about the extent to which our expectations can influence subsequent experiences. So perhaps don’t apologise in advance for the bitterness of your hypothetical grapefruit tart – just employ some artful deception and tell the eaters how very sweet it is, and hope that their expectations will do the hard work of making that tart deliciously palatable.

Also if you want the inside edge on replicating that research group’s assuredly delicious research ice cream, here’s the ingredients list. Everyone loves research ice cream.

Water (33.7% by weight)
40% cream (24%)
Condensed skim milk (22%)
Sucrose (15.2%)
Cocoa powder (2%)
Glucose syrup (1.5%)
Sugared egg yolk (1%)
Vanilla flavour (0.5%)
Guar gum (0.1%)
Carrageenan (0.01%)

… plus as much theobromine as you personally see fit, of course.