Food memory oriented towards detecting novelty

Understanding flavour perception is a major concern for food development and consumer research. Specifically, in an environment that frequently imposes changes to recipes for safety, nutritional or sustainable reasons, being able to guarantee that a product preferred by consumers will have a consistent flavour requires a tool to control this quality. Thanks to collaborative efforts with researchers at Wageningen and Copenhagen Universities, the INRA Centre for Taste, Food and Nutrition Sciences in Dijon has focused on how sensory memory interferes with the perception of novelty introduced into foods.

Updated on 01/17/2013
Published on 07/17/2012

By giving a sense to the information transmitted by our sensory organs, and by fashioning our preferences and rejections as we experience different foods, learning and memory play fundamental roles in our food choices. But which sensory information is retained spontaneously when we eat, and how is this achieved? The degree to which this information is retained spontaneously in a normal eating situation, and the role played by this incidentally learned memory in subsequent food expectations have been explored by the INRA Centre for Taste, Food and Nutrition Sciences in collaboration with researchers at Wageningen and Copenhagen Universities.

A Dutch researcher, E.P. Köster, recently proposed a paradigm inspired by the recognition tests used in cognitive psychology, to address these issues. During an initial learning session, participants were offered a meal or snack which contained a number of target foods. Any reference to memory was carefully avoided. Rather, everything was organised such that the participants consumed the foods as they would in their everyday lives. After a certain retention interval, the participants are invited to return to the laboratory and were then unexpectedly asked to perform a memory test,, during which they received a series of samples, some identical to the products consumed during the first session, and others with a slightly different texture, flavour or aroma (for example, a difference in viscosity or sweetness, or the addition of a new aromatic compound). The participants are asked to taste each sample and indicate whether it was identical to, or different from, the food product that they had consumed during the first session.

Thanks to close collaborative links established with teams who have applied this paradigm (Centre of Innovative Consumer Science, Wageningen, Netherlands and the Institute of Food Science, Copenhagen), scientists in the INRA Centre for Taste, Food and Nutrition Sciences were able to work on data obtained during six separate studies carried out in France, Denmark and the Netherlands and involving 397 participants aged between 17 and 84 years.

The results demonstrated that although people were able to recognise a food they had previously consumed from amongst foods with a slightly different texture, flavour or aroma, this was not because they recognised the previously-consumed foods as such but because they detected the minor sensory variations applied to these foods. In particular, it appeared that participants were more confident in saying "this food is different from what I ate the last time" than "this food is the same as what I ate last time". This was regardless of the gender or age of the subjects, the food tested (cream dessert, biscuit, soup, orange juice, yoghurt, etc.), the type of change made (difference in texture, flavour or aroma) or period of time elapsing between the tests (8 hours, 24 hours or one week).

In other words, learning occurs during eating, but memory for food seems to be mainly involved in detecting novelty and change and not in the recollection of previous experiences. From an evolutionary standpoint, this seems understandable; it is indeed more important to respond efficiently to novelty in a food, i.e. to a potential toxic element it may contain, than to recognise harmless foods that have previously been consumed.

Beyond characterising the cognitive processes involved in food consumption, the challenge is to predict those sensory characteristics of a food where any modification, even minimal, means that it will lose its "sense". In a context where it is often important to assess the effects of changing ingredients or processes on the texture or flavour of a food, the recognition paradigm offers interesting perspectives, similar to those which occur in everyday life: "Is this product identical to, or different from, the one I am used to eating?"

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For further information

  • Léri Morin-Audebrand, Jos Mojet, Claire Chabanet, Sylvie Issanchou, Per Moller, Ep Köster et Claire Sulmont-Rossé, « The role of novelty detection in food memory », Acta Psychologica, 2011, p. 1-22.