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Eating with our Eyes


The digital era has reinforced the reign of food visuals. Is there hope beyond rainbow bagels?

Food should be a multisensory experience: a tantalising aroma wafting up to the nose, a play of textures exploding in the mouth, a surprising combination of flavours lingering on the palate. However, in today's social media-driven, highly visual world, we are constantly interacting with food only through sight. The old aphorism ascribed to the first-century Roman gourmand Apicius, "We eat first with our eyes", has never felt more accurate. If an elaborate, scenographic presentation of food was favoured by Roman patricians as a means to amaze their guests and express their wealth and prosperity, the digital world we live in has amplified the importance of food visuals in all four corners of the earth.
"While the senses of taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and texture (touch or oral- somatosensation) provide the ultimate arbiters of a food's palatability, visuals make for a big part of our appreciation of food. The natural desire, or urge, to look at food could well be an evolutionary adaption: our brains learnt to enjoy seeing food, since it would likely precede consumption", says Charles Spence, Professor of Experimental Psychology and Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford.
"Foraging – the search for nutritious foods – is one of the brain's most important functions, and in humans, this activity relies primarily on vision". Food and sight are so closely linked that it has been suggested that trichromatic colour vision could have developed in primates as an adaptation to help identify colourful fruits amongst the dark green canopy.
Nonetheless, if visuals have played an essential role in the human relationship with food since time immemorial, there has arguably never been a time where they have been so preponderant. "What's peculiar in our age is the absolute dominance of the visual: we live in the age of the images of food, and sometimes food is reduced to its visual appearance", says Nicola Perullo, Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo, Italy.
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