"Watching what you eat" has taken on a whole new meaning at the Restaurant of the Future.
Although the university canteen in the Dutch town of Wageningen looks like an upmarket eatery – with its floor-to-ceiling windows, black marble worktops and minimalist fixtures and fittings – it is in fact a laboratory in disguise. Banks of hidden cameras zoom in on every morsel that enters diners' mouths, invisible scales built into the floor weigh you as you pay for your meal, and beware of that comfy-looking chair which could be monitoring your heartbeat as you chew.
From the country that gave us Big Brother, comes a new scientific venture into human eating habits. Is food on square plates more appetising than those on circular ones? Will certain dishes be more popular when there is a warm reddish tone to the lighting than when the ambience takes on a colder, bluer hue? These are some of the questions that Dutch scientists will try to answer with their extensive menu of electronic wizardry.
Rene Koster, the director of the restaurant's research team, said: "Before birth, a mother passes on her food habits to her unborn child in the womb and even in adulthood most of the decisions in the process of food choice and eating are made subconsciously so you can't get reliable answers by just asking people.
"We now have a setting with realistic conditions, where we can truly observe."
To illustrate his point about the idiosyncracies of the human palate, he tells the story of the milk machine. The Dutch like their calcium at lunchtimes and, in many canteens, milk is dispensed from a non-descript metal container.
Without any fanfare, the managers decided to switch to organic milk and, for nine months, diners slurped away quite happily. Then the supplier asked that an "Organic" sticker be stuck on the box. "Straight away, complaints started, people were moaning the milk tasted funny, that it was off," recalls Mr Koster. "The sticker triggered the thought that something had changed, and then that was their reality."
It is that sort of knee-jerk reaction, peer pressure and social conditioning that the Restaurant of the Future hopes to circumvent. More than 200 people, mainly staff and students from the university, have signed up to be human guinea pigs for the experiment that officially began this month.
Everyone eating in the canteen has to consent to being watched by the team of 22 scientists who will manually code each action and feed it into a huge databank from which trends can then be extrapolated. Facial recognition software is also being developed to automatically recognise different expressions as people chew their food.
The restaurant expects to generate one gigabyte of data every minute – more than the rest of Wageningen University together – and it will be a valuable trove of information, given that eating out is a rapidly growing market. In the Netherlands, about one-third of food consumption, in terms of sales, occurs outside the home, in the UK it is more than half of the market and in Japan it is two-thirds.
The puppet masters at Wageningen University will play around with every aspect of their canteen from the dispositions of the serving staff – who can be ordered to be super-surly or obsequious as required – to prices. "I know for certain and we'll prove it in a project ... that your price awareness is very different in the context of grabbing lunch at work than when you're shopping in the supermarket on a Saturday morning," Mr Koster said.
"You're paying attention to other things ... you have a fixed amount of time to eat, you have to talk to some colleagues, plan for a meeting, so your mind is busy with other things than whether the bread is more or less expensive."
The €3m (£2.2bn) venture has been set up in conjunction with a catering company, a kitchen manufacturer and a software firm but the restaurant's directors also see benefits for those outside the corporate arena. Psychologists will be able to examine the way people interact while eating and whether behaviour changes in all-male and all-female seating arrangements.
And the Dutch study might also feed into the battle against obesity. Nutrition experts already know that simply telling people to eat more healthily does not work but the Wageningen eatery could help uncover subtle ways to manipulate behaviour for the better. Does a fruity perfume in the air make you skip the fries? Does being surrounded by plants make you choose more greens?
There will also be attempts to encourage more environmentally friendly habits. In the Netherlands, a third of all food is thrown away and the canteen has installed a special bin for organic waste, so that it can be collected for conversion to biogas. But it is an ugly design, reminiscent of an airplane toilet, with a heavy lid that makes it all a bit of an effort to separate the detritus on your plate. "The question is can a better design enhance userability?" said Mr Koster.
For the newcomer left to have lunch in the new canteen, it is hard to forget about the cameras. Predictably, you find yourself drawn towards the healthier option of the salad bar; you don't sit down at a table with two good-looking guys, conscious of the wry smile that will probably settle on the monitoring scientists' faces; and you're paranoid about talking with your mouth full.
It is clear, however, that the regular diners have long passed this point of paranoia. "I come here four times a week so it's just so normal for me now, it's just lunch in the nearby canteen where the food is good," said Tanja Speek, a 28-year-old PhD student. Then looking at her half-empty soup bowl, she jokes, "Although I did pick the pea soup today and there's green lighting. Is there some connection?"Reuse content