How Music Makes Sense When It Comes To Good Nutrition
Ditch the salt and cue up the Johnny Cash — sonic seasoning can actually make food taste better in healthier ways
After age 50, your physical wellness will be challenged: lower metabolism that can cause weight fluctuations, less bone density and strength that impairs balance and increases bone fractures from falls, as well as hormonal changes such as menopause for women and andropause for men.
Every decade brings new health issues. Everything from diabesity (obesity+diabetes), high blood pressure, and even loss of taste and smell can become obstacles in achieving life satisfaction and a sense of emotional well-being.
As the baby boom generation is living longer, only some of those bonus years are lived in good health. But, unfortunately, our health spans and well spans are not matching our lifespans.
Can Music Be the New Healthy Aging Diet Plan?
Renowned gastrophysicist Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford in London, may have the answer.
High-pitched music can trick the brain into thinking your meal is 10% sweeter.
His innovative research is the basis for three bestselling books, "Gastrophysics – The New Science In Eating," "The Perfect Meal" and "Sense-Hacking" demonstrating how our five senses can train our brains to eat more wisely. Or what Spence calls "multisensory dining."
For instance, for diabetics, a low-sugar meal paired with certain high-pitch music, such as songs by Taylor Swift or Mariah Carey, can trick the brain into thinking the meal is 10% sweeter.
For those with hypertension needing a low-sodium diet, lower-pitch music with more bass, such as jazz and blues or pop icon Frank Sinatra and country legend Johnny Cash, can make the meal taste more savory without adding salt.
"As we age, our senses decline, but in the case of hearing or eyesight, we have solutions such as hearing aids or eyeglasses to maintain the optimal level of these senses," said Spence. "When taste and smell go, we don't have any solutions for that."
According to an American Hospital Association report, by 2030, 25% of the boomer generation will have diabetes. Six in 10 will have at least one chronic condition due to obesity, such as high cholesterol or heart disease.
Communities of color have a higher risk; according to the CDC, Blacks had the highest levels of adult obesity nationally (49.6%), followed by Hispanics (44.8%) and whites (42.2%.).
How Our Senses Change
These conditions are estimated to increase health care spending by $149 billion annually, of which Medicare or Medicaid pays for about half. And as noted in the journal Nature, 41% of U.S. adults are predicted to have hypertension (high blood pressure) by 2030 – a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stroke and Alzheimer's.
Part of managing obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure has to do with diet. Your tastebuds and sense of smell can be affected after age 60 with certain medications, sinus and dental problems, colds and flu, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's, and side effects of COVID-19, according to the Mayo Clinic.
"When taste and smell go, we don't have any solutions for that."
One study showed chronic stress increases cortisol levels that affect taste, lowering the intensity of sweet and sour flavors. This decline in sensory acuity is not just about over-salting or over-sweetening food; it significantly impacts the quality of life, such as loss of appetite and lack of enjoyment in dining, which can lead to issues like depression.
Spence's clinical research focuses on enhancing multisensory experiences and how our brains process different sensory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) messages.
Much of his multimodal studies have been on the effect of sounds and music to influence our tastebuds and sense of smell and to change perceptions and enjoyment of the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter or savoriness (also known as umami).
"Because of the high level of daily medications older adults take, they need, for instance, up to 12 times more salt in their soup to get the same flavor they had before the medications diluted their tastebuds," said Spence. "This, in turn, is bad for hypertension which is where the sonic seasoning strategies may help address this issue."
From Airline Food to Hospitals: Music May Be the Spice of Life
Some of Spence's consulting work in the private sector has included a project for Starbucks in the U.K. to launch a new coffee product with a disco ambient soundscape. Customers who initially tasted bitterness in the recipe reported the coffee tasted 10% sweeter once the pulsing rhythms of Donna Summer were played.
For British Airways, Spence developed a "Sound Bite" menu for long-haul flights pairing meals with certain music. Passengers using the music selections reported 38% enhanced flavor with their in-flight meals.
Spence has identified that ambient sounds in our dining environments have been used effectively in most restaurants for decades but have yet to be applied to other environments.
Some of Spence's consulting work in the private sector has included a project for Starbucks in the U.K. to launch a new coffee product with a disco ambient soundscape.
For example, an airplane or a hospital setting needs to overcome the disturbing noise factors and stressful environments that increase anxiety levels. Focusing our senses on disturbing sounds impacts the taste of the meals, making them less flavorful.
In decades past, hospitals were like libraries of quiet environments to help patients heal. But given all the technology we use today, these quiet spaces have become constantly disturbing, noisy settings that disrupt patients' sleep and comfort and can also be associated with increased staff errors.
According to the World Health Organization's "Guidelines for Community Noise," the noise levels in hospitals should not exceed 35 decibels, yet in most US hospitals, the decibel level is closer to 95, with the ICUs often over 110 decibels.
Over the last several years, some hospitals have addressed these noise issues with new flooring that absorbs sounds, and policies regarding more quiet environments at nurse stations. Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, Maryland even added a "care channel" to its closed circuit television in-patient rooms to deliver soothing images with calming instrumental music.
And while hospitals are one new area for Spence's research, he also focuses on optimizing the social aspects of eating and drinking in long-term care communities and aging in place.
"More older adults are consuming their meals all alone," said Spence. "While we have not yet figured out how to turn water into wine, we can enhance the enjoyment of a meal through sounds and music."
He added, "Living longer is a global phenomenon and our research shows a surprising degree of cross-cultural consistency – our studies in Europe and North America have been replicated in India and other countries in Asia to show there is a commonality among different countries and different cultures when it comes to tastes we like or reject and how sonic seasoning can make meals taste better."
Triggering Memories of Sensory Experiences
His own caregiving story precipitated Spence's recent research in this area. Several years ago, before Spence lost his mother to dementia, he turned his research lens on how to encourage her to eat because she had significant weight loss after moving to a memory care community.
"While we have not yet figured out how to turn water into wine, we can enhance the enjoyment of a meal through sounds and music."
"The only thing she would eat was ice cream," said Spence. At first, he thought this might be nostalgia from her younger years. Still, he realized it was mainly about the temperature of the cold dessert, the incredible sensation coating her mouth was all she had to hold onto to bring her pleasure while eating.
However, the memory care facility staff felt a diet based on ice cream was not nutritious enough. Spence worked with the memory care unit and an expert chef to make the ice cream more nutritious (less fat, more protein) and find nostalgic flavors such as Cream of Tomato, which was his mother's favorite soup.
While the ice cream looked pink and therefore may have triggered the brain to think sweet, Spence made a label for the bowl with the old tomato soup label and floral chintz tablecloth and napkins similar to the ones she remembered from home. He also played her favorite World War II-era songs by British singer Vera Lynn.
Spence said she blossomed by creating an entire multisensory environment that triggered in his mother's brain the nostalgic memories and the sensory experiences of her younger years.
While Cream of Tomato soup ice cream may sound odd to Western diners, Spence says other countries, specifically Japan, have been creating savory ice creams for years. And along with the taste and texture, using soundscapes, including sounds of the sea, to enhance seafood-based meals has proven successful in various research studies.
"There is no reason sonic seasoning should be limited to high-end dining experiences," said Spence. "By engaging multisensory dining in any environment – hospital, memory care or at home – we bring both nutrition and pleasure back to one of our most basic activities: the joy of eating."