From GoodReads: “Off Menu is a charming, fun-fact-filled deep dive into the little-known science of food and dining: why we eat what we eat, the nuances of our experience of taste and flavor, and the tiny, easy hacks and tweaks that, when mastered, can make a huge difference in our diets, meals, and relationships with food and drink.”
This is a book about food perceptions and how our experience of eating is influenced by far more than just the taste of food. It runs along the same lines as books I’ve previously read like Real Food, Fake Food and Mindless Eating, and quotes from many other books I’ve either read in part or in whole. (Shows you how many books about food and food history I read, no? Heh.) There is a lot of good information in here – so much, in fact, that I actually wished I had a physical copy at times, because I couldn’t take in everything all at once. Though the audiobook is under six hours, it took me about three weeks to listen to it. There was just SO MUCH in there, and I needed time to process each bit.
For me, the most interesting and poignant lesson had to do with an experiment involving a smoothie mix. I’m going to have to paraphrase this – no physical copy – so I might get some details wrong, but this is the gist. Participants were given two smoothies to drink. One was labeled with words like “rich” and “indulgent,” and had a nutritional label saying that it was over 600 calories. The other had words like “light” and “healthy,” with a label saying it was under 300 calories. In reality, it was the exact same content and the calorie level was somewhere between the two labels. Now, as you might expect, participants reported that the “indulgent” smoothie tasted better than the “light” smoothie. They also said they felt fuller and more satisfied with the first. But here’s where things got interesting: They actually were fuller after drinking the first smoothie. Tests were done to show that their ghrelin levels decreased significantly more and their metabolism ramped up to deal with the expected calorie load.
Their perception of how much they were eating actually affected how their body processed the food.
You can see the implications, yeah? We talk about calories in vs calories out, and how weight loss happens when you’re in an energy deficit. But what does it mean to be in an energy deficit when your brain can literally adjust your metabolism based on what it thinks it’s eating? No wonder weight loss is such a complicated thing – especially as this is literally only one tiny fragment of the equation??
Now, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that this book is about weight loss. It’s not. It’s research into perceptions of food based on different senses. There are sections about how music in different keys can change how sweet or salty you perceive a dish, and how the color and shape of plates will affect the taste of food, and the incredible market research and development that goes into everything from packaging aroma (did you know that the smell of vanilla ice cream is actually a chemical on the lid because you can’t smell a frozen product?) to the color and font of a brand name. It’s fascinating.
Performance: Katie Schorr did a fine job reading this book, though I do recommend that if you really want to get deep into the science here, or take down tips for better dinner parties, you should get yourself a physical copy. Assuming you can find one, because as far as I can find online, only an audio version exists at this point.