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New study reveals that our food choices are decided by how our tongue perceives the food texture

By Dental Tribune International
July 02, 2019

STATE COLLEGE, Pa., U.S.: It is a well-known fact that individual differences in taste and smell perception decide whether a person likes or dislikes a particular type of food. A recent study used chocolate to investigate how our tongue reacts to different food textures, and influences us to eat, like or reject different types of food.

A group of 111 volunteer tasters, who had their tongues checked for physical sensitivity, were recruited into this study conducted in the Sensory Evaluation Center at the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences. They were then asked to describe how their tongue perceived different textures of chocolate. The objective of the study was to test whether there was a relationship between oral touch sensitivity and the perception of particle size, for which the researchers used Von Frey Hairs (VFH) - small calibrated monofilaments that deliver a specific amount of pressure on the tongue surface. This is a quick way to gauge whether the participants could discriminate between different amounts of force applied to their tongue surfaces.

Researchers stated that when the participants were split into high- and low-acuity groups based on pressure point sensitivity, they observed a significant relationship between chocolate texture discrimination and pressure point sensitivity on the centre of the tongue in the high-acuity group. However, a similar association was absent for the lateral surface of the tongue.

Dr John Hayes, Director of the Sensory Evaluation Center, said: “These findings are novel, as we are unaware of previous work showing a relationship between oral pressure sensitivity and ability to detect differences in particle size in a food product.” He further added, “Collectively, these findings suggest that texture detection mechanisms, which underpin point pressure sensitivity, likely contribute to the detection of particle size in food such as chocolate.”

As the study was conducted by a cross-disciplinary team involving both food and speech scientists, it also provided new insights about swallowing. “An important aspect of speech-language pathology is helping people with feeding and swallowing problems. Many clinical populations— ranging from young children with disabilities to older adults with dementia— may reject foods based on their perception of texture. This research starts to help us understand those individual differences,” said Dr Nicole Etter, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the Penn State College of Health and Human Development.

The team, with these insights, now wants to go a step further and conduct research on foods other than chocolate. This time they would like to enrol participants who are older and perhaps less healthy, who will be tested for. The study will test their ability to experience oral sensations and explore their food rejection behaviour that may have severe health and nutrition implications.

The study, titled “Oral somatosensatory acuity is related to particle size perception in chocolate,” was published on May 15, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

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