What is mouthfeel?

When you are trying out ‘new flavours’, develop a new recipe or improving an existing one, the taste naturally comes to mind. Especially when sugar is to be reduced or replaced. But the taste is just one component of the food experience. If we want to take a holistic view of the total experience, we must address the mouthfeel. But what is it? And why is it important?

5 February 2020 •

The eas­i­est way to explain mouth­feel is to explain what it is not. Simply put, mouth­feel is the over­all expe­ri­ence of food or drink in the mouth – minus the taste and aro­ma. The term is often used by som­me­liers, who talk about how wine is feel­ing in the mouth, but every­one who works with ‘taste’ should use the term; the taste is just part of the over­all expe­ri­ence. In order to take a holis­tic view of the din­ing expe­ri­ence, it is impor­tant to work with the whole mouth feeling.

Taste and aroma

Our expe­ri­ence of food and drink is com­posed of taste, aro­ma, and mouth­feel. It is eas­i­er to under­stand mouth­feel and its sig­nif­i­cance if you first under­stand what dis­tin­guish­es taste and aroma.

Taste is the expe­ri­ence that comes from the recep­tors on the tongue. These are the four basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bit­ter. Recently, uma­mi has been rec­og­nized as the fifth basic taste, as researchers have suc­ceed­ed in show­ing that we have taste recep­tors that rec­og­nize umami.

Aroma is real­ly the same as smell. We have about a thou­sand dif­fer­ent smell recep­tors that have the abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize dif­fer­ent types of odor­ants. When we eat, fra­grances are released that enter the nose and reach the smell recep­tors. This can hap­pen in the duct that con­nects the oral cav­i­ty and nasal cav­i­ty (retronasaly), or from the mouth and nose.

Mouthfeel

Now we come to the mouth­feel. Initially, I wrote that it is the over­all food expe­ri­ence minus the taste and aro­ma. That is large­ly true, but I will now explain mouth­feel in more depth.

We are equipped with taste recep­tors and smell recep­tors, but there is a third ele­ment, that is often over­looked when it comes to food. That is the somatosen­so­ry sys­tem. Simply put, it is our abil­i­ty to feel. The somatosen­so­ry sys­tem is found through­out the body but is par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive in the mouth.

Mouthfeel is part of the somatosen­so­ry sys­tem. The sys­tem sens­es the phys­i­cal expe­ri­ences of pres­sure, vibra­tion, fric­tion, and tem­per­a­ture dif­fer­ences. Receptors in the tongue, teeth and oth­er parts of the mouth help cre­ate the over­all mouthfeel.

Mouthfeel is some­thing that the con­sumer rarely talks about – at least not explic­it­ly. But at sec­ond thought, we real­ize that when some­thing does not real­ly ‘taste’ as it should, it often regards mouth­feel. Chips that have become soft, pas­ta that has been over­cooked, or ice­berg let­tuce that has lost fresh­ness and crispiness.

The phases of mouthfeel

Mouthfeel becomes more under­stand­able and relat­able if we divide it into dif­fer­ent phases:

The tactile phase:

First comes the tac­tile phase. It is the imme­di­ate feel­ing of touch in the mouth. Imagine a fork with meat, sauce, and rice – per­haps a chick­en stew. When the tongue and mouth are just rub­bing at the hot chick­en, the tac­tile phase becomes very clear. You dare not to ful­ly dig in, because of the heat.

The chewing phase:

When you then dare to chew and real­ly enclose the food prop­er­ly with your tongue and palate, the mouth­feel changes as the chick­en, rice and sauce stick togeth­er into one body.

The subsequent phase:

After you have swal­lowed, the after­ef­fect aris­es. How do your mouth and throat feel? Do you expe­ri­ence cool­ness, dry­ness, heat, or slim­i­ness? Your mouth is emp­ty but the food may have left an increased tem­per­a­ture in the mouth, cre­at­ed dry­ness, or left a burn­ing spice experience.

The psychological phase:

Finally comes the psy­cho­log­i­cal after­ef­fect. How does it feel after the meal? This phase can, for exam­ple, be described as refresh­ing, thirst-quench­ing or sat­u­rat­ing. In the case of the hot chick­en stew, a feel­ing of gen­er­al sat­u­ra­tion and well-being is felt. A fat­ty sauce and oth­er calo­rie-rich acces­sories may make you drowsy.

The Ketchup experiment

It is not sur­pris­ing that taste, aro­ma, and mouth­feel may be a bit confusing.

On the one hand, there are food expe­ri­ences that are dif­fi­cult to clas­si­fy. For a long time astrin­gency (the dry sen­sa­tion in the mouth that tea or red wine can give rise to) was con­sid­ered a taste expe­ri­ence but is now con­sid­ered to be a mouthfeel.

On the oth­er hand, the three inter­act with each oth­er. Depending on how we process the food in the mouth (for exam­ple, how vig­or­ous­ly we chew), taste and aro­ma sub­stances are released in dif­fer­ent amounts.

This inter­ac­tion is illus­trat­ed in an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment that the food researcher Ole G. Mouritsen and the chef Klavs Styrbæk describe in the book Mouthfeel: How Texture Makes Taste.

The exper­i­ment cre­ates two types of ketchup. The only dif­fer­ence is the pro­cess­ing; one is made com­plete­ly smooth and the oth­er has pieces that offer some chew­ing resis­tance. Although the same amount of the same kind of ingre­di­ents is used, test sub­jects, who taste both, say that they taste com­plete­ly different.

Is it possible?

The answer is both yes and no.

Both kinds of ketchup taste the same, but the mouth­feel dif­fers so much that you think they taste dif­fer­ent. It’s easy to believe that the two ketchup vari­eties are actu­al­ly dif­fer­ent vari­eties with dif­fer­ent ingre­di­ents. Strange, right?

As the coarse ketchup requires chew­ing, aro­mas are released that affect our taste and smell. As a result, the taste seems to be enhanced, but in fact, it is the mouth­feel and aro­mas that togeth­er make us expe­ri­ence a taste change.

Expectations

Mouthfeel is great­ly affect­ed by our expectations.

In their book, Mouritsen and Styrbæk talk about anoth­er exper­i­ment in which par­tic­i­pants were offered a puree. The ques­tion was how many of the par­tic­i­pants could iden­ti­fy that the puree was made from cabbage.

Only five per­cent succeeded.

Cabbage is dif­fi­cult to rec­og­nize. But even famil­iar ingre­di­ents are a chal­lenge; only every oth­er par­tic­i­pant rec­og­nizes toma­toes with­out the help of the mouthfeel.

Another exam­ple regard­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of expec­ta­tions is from a food fair in the Netherlands. Sacha and Cedrique are two guys who turn McDonald’s food into snacks that passers­by can taste in the belief that it is an organ­ic fast-food alter­na­tive. The response? Look here:

https://​youtu​.be/​4​Q​a​6​Q​X​B​x​xWw

The tastiest food we’ve eaten

In an old issue of a youth mag­a­zine, a lit­tle girl is telling us about her school trip. The fire­place goes out dur­ing the night in the old cot­tage. In the morn­ing, it is minus sev­en degrees Celsius and the packed food has frozen and has become hard as a rock. The girl and her friends use an axe to split the spaghet­ti. Despite these hard­ships, the expe­ri­ence is described as fun and the food tast­ed won­der­ful after all the efforts.

It is easy relat­ing to the girl’s sto­ry. We prob­a­bly all have sim­i­lar sto­ries where sim­ple and every­day food is trans­formed into the best we have eat­en. Perhaps after a day at the lake, a sports activ­i­ty or a moun­tain hike.

But as a food pro­duc­er, the prod­uct must always main­tain high qual­i­ty. Not just dur­ing excur­sions and out­door activ­i­ties. Taste is still an impor­tant mea­sure. But if you do not take into account the mouth­feel, it may not mat­ter how good the flavours are. And when it comes to sug­ar sub­sti­tutes, there is the risk that both taste and mouth­feel are compromised.

Sugar and mouthfeel

If you want to replace sug­ar, there are a num­ber of alter­na­tives. But it is anoth­er sto­ry if you want to replace sug­ar, and at the same time, main­tain mouthfeel.

If sug­ar is removed to reduce calo­ries and blood sug­ar lev­els, the sweet­ness can only be replaced with a high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­er such as ste­vi­ol gly­co­sides. Three grams of the herbal sweet­en­er is enough to reach the same sweet­ness as one kilo­gram of sug­ar. But then the sug­ar bulk and tex­ture will lack, which con­tributes a lot to the mouth­feel. Therefore, some­thing else is often need­ed to give the same mouthfeel.

Finding a com­bi­na­tion of high-inten­si­ty sweet­en­ers and oth­er ingre­di­ents that give the same sweet­ness and mouth­feel is dif­fi­cult. It is time-con­sum­ing and requires spe­cial­ist exper­tise that not every­one has. Simply put: It is dif­fi­cult (to put it mild­ly) to find the right com­bi­na­tion and dosage.

Finally

In the e‑book The Sweetening jour­ney, we go fur­ther in explor­ing the chal­lenges of replac­ing sug­ar with few­er calo­ries but main­tain­ing good qual­i­ty prod­ucts. If you have not already down­loaded and read it, then it is time to do so. You find it here.

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