Sensory Magic!

Sensory Magic!

May 31, 2017 Return

Assoc Prof Dr Ciarán Forde Principal Investigator, Clinical Nutrition Research Centre, Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (A*STAR)

Food does not simply show up at the supermarket. For every new brand that hits the aisles, the manufacturer has spent millions, maybe even billions, on ensuring that the food has everything to appeal to consumers’ taste buds and turn them into loyal customers. The food needs to have not only the right taste but also the right texture, appearance and fragrance – with ‘right’ being as appealing to as many people in the target market as possible, of course. In fact, there is a whole set of science related to this, called sensory nutritional science!

Not all of us are scientists, but as parents we can apply some of their ‘tricks’ to get our children, especially overweight ones, to start and stay on the healthy eating habit. Assoc Prof Dr Ciarán Forde, speaking at the 9th Scientific Seminar on Drivers of Consumer Food Choices back in November 2016, has some interesting insight on this topic.


Interesting Insight 1

We cannot tell how many calories are present in a dish through taste and sight.


Dr Forde and his colleagues prepared five variations of a ramen dish, all with the same taste. In each variation, minor changes were made to the ingredients to vary its caloric content. These dishes were served at lunch, and the participants’ food intake and appetite for the rest of the day are measured. This is what they found:

  • Participants who ate lunch with more calories also consumed more calories for the rest of the day.
  • Participants who ate lunch with fewer calories also consumed fewer calories for the rest of the day. They did not feel a need to eat more to make up for the fewer calories in their lunch.


Therefore, we can get a bit ‘sneaky’ and make small adjustments to our children’s favourite dishes, with minimal impact on the taste, to influence our children’s eating habits for the better.


How did the ramen go? Using the ramen dish as an example to illustrate our point, here is what Dr Forde’s research team did to adjust the caloric content of the dish. You can do the same to similar noodle-based dishes.



Lower calorie

Higher calorie


Use spiralized courgette (zoodle)

Typical ramen noodles

Broth/soup (dashi broth and soy bean paste)

Typical ramen soup

Add canola oil and maltodextrin


Baked chicken breast

Breaded chicken breast

Narutomaki (Japanese fish cake)

Thinner slices

Thicker slices

Sesame seeds

Add less

Add more


You can apply the same ‘add or subtract’ principles to other types of food and beverages. Here are some examples:

  • Artificial sweeteners to replace sugar in beverages and pastries.
  • Salt substitutes (that do not contain sodium chloride) to replace salt.
  • Replace santan and ghee with substitutes such as low fat milk and olive oil respectively.


As long as the taste is the same, or is not too different, your child will have an easier time getting used to the healthier versions of their favourite dishes.


Interesting Insight 2

How fast a person eats (eating rate) can influence how much food he or she ends up eating.


Dr Forde and his colleagues measured the natural eating rate of various dishes in Singapore, and this is just a small sampling of what they found:

  • When it comes to various rice dishes, people who eat plain porridge end up eating at a much higher rate than brown or white rice.
  • Chicken nuggets are eaten faster than chicken wings.
  • Steamed fish is consumed faster than sotong dishes.

The study found that ‘softer’ and easier-to-eat foods are eaten much faster. This is not good news because various studies have shown that there is a link between faster eating speed and excess weight or obesity.

Therefore, a good way for parents to cut down on overweight children’s daily caloric intake is to make slight adjustments to their favourite meals without changing the taste too drastically. Basically, come up with ways to make the child spend more time chewing and eating the food. Some examples to consider are:

  • Use chicken wings (skin removed) for the child’s favourite chicken dishes.
  • Replace minced meat with meat strips or jerky. 
  • Use thicker noodles such as spaghetti and kuey teow instead of tang hoon and rice noodles.


Interesting Insight 3

Just knowing that the food is “healthier” can affect a person’s perception of that food.


There is a common belief that healthier foods are less sweet or tasty. Some studies found that there are people who would complain that the food does not taste as good as their favourite version, even if there is actually very little difference in taste. What the researchers did was to put a “low salt” label on a chicken noodle package, without altering the salt concentration present. People who saw the label and later ate the chicken noodle believed that the dish is less salty.

What parents can do, therefore, is pretty simple: don’t tell the children that there is now less salt or sugar in their favourite dishes! If your child loves overly sweetened beverages, for example, start by cutting down a small amount of sugar. If the child does not notice the difference, let him or her get used to the adjusted beverage before cutting the sugar down a bit more. Do this gradually until you have cut down the sugar to a more acceptable level.


Psst, these tips also work for stubborn spouses and other adults.


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