Among the lively atmosphere of Oktoberfest, with the smell of freshly baked pretzels wafting through the air and the oompah bands setting the tone, there exists a lesser-known but essential element that contributes to the smooth and enjoyable consumption of the festival’s iconic beer and food offerings: oral – or soft – tribology.
This intriguing field of study plays a pivotal role in understanding and perfecting the tactile sensations and interactions that unfold inside our mouths as everyone enjoys the delights of Oktoberfest. Soft tribology shapes our gastronomic experience and adds to the culinary delights that make the festival truly unforgettable.
What is soft tribology?
The term ‘mouthfeel’ describes complex sensory experiences during eating, including the tactile sensations during chewing. A product’s mouthfeel can significantly affect consumer preference, making it crucial for food and beverage developers to measure and optimise. In the past, trained sensory panels assessed mouthfeel, but this process is costly and time-consuming, especially with large sample sizes.
For foods like semi-solids and liquids, flow characteristics (rheology) can correlate with specific mouthfeel attributes like stickiness, thickness, and mouth-coating. However, rheology alone often can’t fully explain the intricate interactions that constitute mouthfeel.
Food scientists have explored tribology – in particular soft tribology – as a promising approach to understanding mouthfeel. Soft tribology examines lubrication and friction using deformable surfaces to better replicate oral conditions.
Soft tribology and Oktoberfest
While October is most well known for Halloween and its huge amounts of chocolate, it also plays host to Oktoberfest! Research into the oral tribology of chocolate is abundant, but almost equally as researched is the oral and soft tribology of liquids, including carbonated soft drinks and the beers found at Oktoberfest’s worldwide.
Carbonated beverages like soft drinks, beer, and sparkling wine enjoy immense popularity. In the United States alone, revenue in the carbonated soft drinks market amount to $149 billion in 2023! The sensory impacts of carbonation are intricate and diverse, having the ability to accentuate certain flavours, such as sourness and saltiness, for example.
When carbonation levels fall too low or rise too high it can lead to an overall flavour imbalance, notably the formation and expansion of CO2 bubbles can significantly influence flavour release and taste perception. This phenomenon is exemplified by the pivotal role played by bubble size in assessing the characteristics of Champagne wine.
Soft and oral tribology plays a huge role in making sure the beers at Oktoberfest’s are the best they can be for the consumer. However, soft tribology’s significance extends beyond Oktoberfest, as it plays a pivotal role in ensuring that beverages like beer, carbonated soft drinks, and even fine wines are enjoyed to their fullest potential.
Whether it’s fine-tuning carbonation levels, enhancing flavours, or perfecting mouthfeel, tribological studies empower food-scientists to provide consumers with the ultimate drinking experience.
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