If you were a cheesemonger and/or DJ in 2018, you might have heard about a compelling experiment called “Cheese in Surround Sound.” For my part, I was both a cheesemonger (I worked as a dishwasher at a cheese shop/restaurant) and a DJ (I listened to music on my phone while dishwashing). Little did I know that scientific studies and my own work experience would collide in the snack aisle in 2022.
Back in 2018, a group of Swiss students at Bern University’s Sound Arts program—and these are students in the alpine European state, not students made of cheese—wanted to see how sound waves might affect cheese’s maturation process. The experiment subjected eight wheels of cheese to different types of music, which would play within custom-built speaker systems on a loop for the duration of the six-and-a-half month maturation process. One wheel of cheese listened to the classic rock heroics of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” another the thumping creep of Vril’s techno “UV.”
According to the study’s 2019 press release, after they had finished maturing, “the cheeses were analysed by professional food technologists in a sensory consensus analysis and submitted to a panel of highly qualified culinary jurors in a blind taste test.”
The results are fascinating. “Put simply,” they say, “cheese that has been exposed to music tastes different.” The standout cheese was the one that listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We Got).” Maybe The Low End Theory was about how low sonic frequencies are the best for altering cheese’s molecular composition?
According to the results, “cheese exposed to hip hop music displayed a discernibly stronger smell and stronger, fruitier taste than the other test samples.”
Flash forward to the current day and the public has been treated to a cross-brand mashup between Cheez-It and Pandora, the music streaming platform owned by Sirius XM. Kellogg has released a limited-edition Cheez-It called “Cheez-It x Pandora® Aged by Audio.”
The technical process used to create these Cheez-Its was modeled after the Swiss study. There are even some confusing-looking/not enlightening images of the process highlighted on Siriux XM’s blog. But the basic idea is the same: The cheese used in these crackers has been vibrating to a playlist filled with hip-hop songs for the entirety of its existence.
The Takeout was lucky enough to receive a free box of the sonically enhanced snack, and we are here to answer the question of whether a playlist of hip-hop songs can really make Cheez-Its taste any different.
The “hip-hop” playlist used for sonic modifications is… well, it’s a bunch of popular rap songs. We’ve got Kid ’n Play and Vanilla Ice, we have Rae Sremmurd and Kendrick Lamar. This is generally an inoffensive playlist, one that cedes sonic similarity for broad appeal. For example, Drake’s “Nice For What,” while certainly a hit song, is dominated by high frequencies, not the lower ones that (according to the Swiss study) sweeten the cheese.
I’m interested in what this all means for future rappers’ personal branding. Rap culture is American culture, and we’ve seen marketing gimmicks that run the gamut from Travis Scott’s McDonald’s meal to Snoop Dogg’s gin. But how great would it be if 50 Cent came out with a gruyere aged to Get Rich or Die Tryin’? When is Chief Keef debuting a cheese tribute to “Hate Being Sober” (maybe “Ate Gorgonzola”)? Or even a re-release of the legendary series of releases by 2010 Kanye and associates, GOUDA Fridays? I’d like to see more rappers in the dairy space.
While hearing is definitely the least necessary of the five senses when it comes to eating, that doesn’t mean that sound isn’t important. Music is constantly used to influence how we experience food and eating, because while we don’t literally use our ears to eat, we are always listening and using our brains to process the sounds around us. This is likely an evolutionary benefit: We listen to make sure there isn’t a big tiger creeping up from behind to kill us! Multiple studies have concluded that specific sounds influence how we enjoy our food. A cottage industry of restaurant playlist curation has even cropped up as a result.
For as long as humans create music, we will be compelled to use it in new ways. One notable example is Plantasia, an album whose target audience is, well, plants. Evidence for sonically engineered plant growth is not solid, but that doesn’t mean scientists aren’t trying. Cheese, then, feels like a natural extension of that effort.
The ingredients list and nutritional information are exactly the same between our control box of Cheez-Its and the Aged by Audio version. Unfortunately, the flavor is, too. These two crackers tasted utterly identical.
I wish this weren’t true; I was really rooting for the hip-hop cheese. Even trying to be nitpicky, I can’t seem to differentiate the two. Is my palate not inquisitive enough to understand the small nuances between them? Perhaps. They are both enjoyable as snacks. I mean, c’mon, they are Cheez-Its after all, so it’s not as though Aged by Audio is bad. But I cannot taste the 808s of the hip-hop playlist! My tongue can’t find the ad-libs! Disappointing.
I will admit, it is a strange time to be assisting the Cheez-It PR machine. Cheez-It is owned by Kellogg, the cereal and snacks giant. Though Cheez-Its haven’t always been part of the Kellogg portfolio (the brand was acquired by Kellogg in 2001), Kellogg itself has been based in Battle Creek, Michigan since its founding in 1906. In late June of 2022, the company announced that it would be splitting itself into 3 separate companies. Cereal and plant-based production will stay in Battle Creek, whereas the snack division, which represents a much larger piece of Kellogg’s bottom line, is moving to Chicago.
This announcement comes six months after a labor struggle between the company and striking cereal workers. Kellogg’s decision to divide itself in three has been seen by some as a union-busting tactic, a deliberate move to weaken the collective power of workers. The Kellogg Company maintains that dividing into more focused segments will help grow profits. Whatever the case may be, it is our sincere hope that flashy snack food innovation such as sonically enhanced cheese doesn’t come at the expense of workers’ rights. No cracker is worth it.