Image: More foods that inspire my senses: desserts from my favorite parfait cafe (top) and traditional Japanese tea sweets (bottom), both in Kyoto, Japan.

By Steven Braun

I will never forget the night my teeth sunk into the most delicious food I have ever eaten. It was a cool evening in Hiroshima, Japan, and I sat at the counter of a back-alley restaurant as customers trickled through to pick up takeout orders on the way home. As the door swung open and closed, I watched the cook prepare my order on the hot plate in front of me: okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake fried and slathered with a sweet and spicy sauce bursting with umami. With the first bite, I found culinary bliss – sweetened by the fact that I had stumbled upon it in such an unassuming place, a diner nestled in a city at once steeped in culture and history and overtrodden by the humdrum and bustle of urban life.

Words often feel insufficient for capturing such a unique memory, but it has left a mark on my senses that I still recall in detail four years later. We all have these memories, where we are blindsided by profound sensory experiences in unexpected places. Surely, many come from food, but we do not often take the time to reflect upon them. Think about the most delicious food you have ever eaten: was it sweet? Savory? Was it tangy and tart, or was it spicy and pungent?

We have creative ways of describing our perception of taste, and perhaps what you are recalling now is some combination of these descriptors (and more). Instead of a single food, maybe multiple experiences come to mind and for different reasons. Perhaps your memory of your grandmother’s apple pie jumps out when you think of sweetness and decadence. Meanwhile, maybe your favorite memories involve eating something unspectacularly simple, like a bowl of tomato soup, but served in extraordinary circumstances, such as being nursed back to health after a bout of the flu.

Examples like these illustrate that our experience of food often extends beyond words alone, although we may not always notice it. When we talk about food, we become momentary artists and architects, often using metaphors to engage with it in spatial, visual, and temporal dimensions. As we slurp broth from a bowl of Thai curry, we talk about its depth of flavor; when sipping a glass of wine, we talk about its full body; and when we have a citrus tart, we talk about how its lemony zest cuts through to leave a tangy, bright finish. We experience the richness of food by journeying through its palette of flavors, following the chef’s arrangement of ingredients to indulge the tongue in the same way a painter selects their hues to stimulate the eyes. Eating is at the heart of our senses, and truly good food demands abstractions of language that feed both body and imagination.

It might be surprising, then, that despite such linguistic richness, human taste is limited to a domain of five basic qualities: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. What we perceive on our tongue is the brain’s response to combinations of them, mediated through chemical receptors in our taste buds. These taste buds communicate to the brain both what qualities are present and their relative intensity, and we experience flavor as the cumulative result of their aggregated signals. But if there is no specific taste receptor for zest, spice, or pungency, what explains the range of tastes we are capable of expressing?

The explanation is something we intimately understand already: taste perception is itself a multisensory experience. In addition to the action of taste receptors in our mouths, our sense of taste is affected by smell, sight, texture, temperature, and even sound. When you are congested with a cold, your sense of taste is dulled by your nose; when food looks burnt, visual cues tell your brain to expect bitterness with your first bite. When we eat, our brain responds to overlapping stimuli from multiple channels of sensation, turning it into an experience we enjoy with our whole body.
 

Visualizing taste, visualizing the senses

It is natural then that our expression of this multisensory experience has come to manifest beyond our tongues, including visual media. We visualize how we engage with food for practical and aesthetic purposes, simple examples of which come from coffee and wine tasting. For instance, tools called flavor wheels provide a visual guide for describing the flavor, aroma, and body of wine varietals and coffee roasts. Similar tools have been made for beer, including a chart showing the flavors and aromas of different kinds of hops. Beyond the bar and coffee shop, some have visualized relationships between individual ingredients, such as this tree map showing complementary pairings of vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood. And finally, when it comes to describing our patterns of behavior with food, infographics are never in short supply.

Other visual tools influence our interaction with food on more physical levels. Nutrition labels tell us the composition of what we eat, breaking it into fats, protein, and carbohydrates. Food pyramids tell us what proportions of our diet should come from different sources, and we use guidelines inspired by pie graphs to ensure that our plates are proportionally balanced between vegetables, grains, and protein. And, of course, food itself is the ultimate visualization of taste: we assess ripeness of fruits and vegetables by color and texture, such as when picking avocados and bananas at the market.

These examples show how we often use visualization for sensory wayfinding, but they also hint at limitations we encounter when we try to collapse something as complex as multisensory experience into singular representations. Inevitably, we cannot capture the totality of an experience without sacrificing context critical to the integrity of the whole. We can use these representations for expression, but we must regard them as snapshots of a larger narrative distributed across space and time. And this is true of visualization more generally; when visualization tells our stories, we must remember that it, too, is constructed by design.
 

Food as visual metaphor

Thinking about how we express our experience of food can thus provide a useful exercise in information design: a challenge to consider the dimensions of sensory experience we can communicate through visualization. What would it mean to “visualize” taste, and how do the limits thereof inform our understanding of what visualization can and cannot do?

When visualizing data, we first assess what data are available and in what form. Here, our data are the dimensions of taste perception that we capture in our memory. At the lowest level, we experience food through flavor in its purest forms — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. We perceive these flavors in different quantities and across different temporal extents, such as a piece of dark chocolate that tastes bitter at first and ends with notes of sweetness. And we notice other qualities like temperature, texture, color, and aroma, all of which emerge in different forms and intensities as well.

Now think about how these dimensions aggregate further up the chain of perception. Pairings of flavors complement each other, producing combinations that delight the senses. (Have you ever had dark chocolate with smoked salt?) Your experience may be affected by time of day, emotional state, physical health, and environment; you may be eating a holiday dinner with family or snarfing down a meal between meetings. And then there are differences in individual taste perception that exist from person to person, including supertasters and others who think cilantro tastes like soap. These facets provide crucial context that influence our sense of taste and memories we carve from it.

In information design, we consider the same questions through different frames. What data can I capture, and what data should I capture? What meaning can I extract from them, and how much of that can I visually encode? What narrative do I want to construct, and is that narrative faithful to the data? If visualization is regarded as an intersubjective event, one in which knowledge is generated at the meeting between designer and user, then how we engage with visualization as expressive medium depends upon answers to these kinds of questions. And if our senses are any indication, our understanding of visual narrative is as nuanced and dependent upon context as something mundane as eating is itself.

Thinking about food in this way — with intentionality, presence, and an awareness of how the ways we engage with our senses inform how we express them to others — offers a beautiful metaphor for how we should endeavor to work with information design. Just as with our senses, the communication of context in visualization is crucial for preserving the integrity of the larger narrative, especially when its interpretation may differ across representations. So the next time you sit down to a meal, think about your food not merely as sustenance but also as creative medium, a designing of the senses to shape your experience of them. In the process, you’ll discover that the rest of your senses have a lot to tell you that your eyes cannot.
 

Further Reading

For more reading about our sense of taste, check out the following:

“How does our sense of taste work?” PubMed Health, retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072592/

Danielle Reed, Toshiko Tanaka, and Amanda McDaniel, “Diverse tastes: Genetics of sweet and bitter perception,” Physiol Behav 88(3): 215-226, retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1698869/

JR Thorpe, “How do your taste buds actually work? Find out with these 5 delicious facts about our sense of taste,” retrieved from http://www.bustle.com/articles/101575-how-do-your-taste-buds-actually-work-find-out-with-these-5-delicious-facts-about-our

For more interesting thoughts about the intersection between food and data, check out Data Cuisine, an experimental approach to exploring data through food and cooking, at http://data-cuisine.net/.

Post by Steven Braun, Data Analytics and Visualization Specialist