The Cognitive Psychology of Food Tourism

Reference: Kim, S., Park, E., Fu, Y., & Jiang, F. (2021). The cognitive development of food taste perception in a food tourism destination: A gastrophysics approach.  Appetite, 165, 105310.

When we think about traveling, we think of new sights, new people, new experiences, and event new tastes. A huge part of our new experiences involves food. Sometimes, people may travel just to try new cuisines! Food plays an important role in tourism, but not much research has focused on the experience of food tourism.

Researching multi-sensory experience through food tourism

Food tourism involves traveling to locations specifically to enjoy the food – both the taste and the associated culinary customs. In general, cognitive studies do not focus on multi-sensory food experiences (often studied in the field of gastrophysics, a field devoted to the science of gastronomy and cooking) and influences on taste perception. That is, research has investigated how food influences our sense of taste, but not the experience the eater gets from smelling or touching the food and how these factors impact taste perception. Even fewer studies focus on the role of food tourism in taste perception, even though we know that other senses and experiences can influence what we taste (for example, the color of a food can affect its perceived flavor).

To address this gap in the research, Sangkyun Kim and colleagues aimed to apply principles of gastrophysics and cognitive science to better understand what perceptual factors and processes may influence food tourists’ experiences in a popular food museum. 

Food replicas on display at the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum.

Interviews at a food museum

The researchers conducted the study in 2018 at the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum (HCM), a food tourist destination in China that exhibits both Hangzhou and Zhejiang cuisines, holds educational events, and allows tourists to taste the food on display. The researchers observed the influence of food tasting and exhibition tours on taste perception with a special focus on the dynamic experiences of tourists who attended. In doing so, the researchers hoped to account for social and cultural perspectives to gain information beyond that which could be obtained through a statistic.

Because preferences and culture tend to influence taste perception, researchers aimed to survey people who were somewhat familiar with the food available for tasting at the museum. Thus, they conducted in-depth interviews with people who self-identified as domestic food tourists (i.e., tourists from around China) who were first-time visitors to the HCM and had completed both the museum tour and tastings, spending at least 60 minutes in the museum before eating. The researchers asked open-ended questions to learn more about the experiences and decisions of the tourists.

Afterward, researchers analyzed the data by synthesizing interviews into common themes that reflected gastrophysics and cognitive-informed principles. 

Food exhibits contribute to a rich sensory experience

Overall, the study found that visual aids, texts that provided information about the history and culinary process, and repeated exposure to certain dishes impacted the tourists’ food tourism experience.

Specifically, learning about the food’s history and the inventors of the cuisine deepened the food tourists’ appreciation of the food they tasted. Multiple tourists spoke about the effectiveness of texts, videos, and replicas of the food enhancing their sensory experiences upon tasting the food. Seeing vivid replicas of the food on display in the museum stimulated their appetite.

Knowledge of the dishes gained from the exhibits meant that tourists tended to have high expectations regarding the food’s flavor. They became more interested in dishes they read about, and even imagined the taste of the food before they indulged. The tourists noted that they compared the food’s actual flavor to their imagined sensory experiences (e.g., how they anticipated that it would feel, smell, and taste) they created based on the museum’s descriptions and replicas. Additionally, when participants knew the cooking method and ingredients used in making a dish, they developed expectations of flavor based on similar dishes and had these expectations in mind when they tasted the dish.

Food for thought

Taken together, the findings of this study emphasize the role of visualization and prior knowledge on multi-sensory experiences surrounding food. Next time you’re traveling and trying a new cuisine, reflect on how the dish was made, where the ingredients come from, and all the senses the dish stimulates. Try to learn a bit about the historical significance of the meal. If you can, participate in the cooking process for an even richer sensory experience!