10 scientific facts about flavour

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As a learned journal brings together research findings about how we taste, Clint Witchalls looks at what scientists have discovered so far.

Taste is fairly well understood. It is detected by the tongue and is neatly categorised into sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami. If food was only experienced as taste, chefs and restaurant critics would be out of a job. Luckily, taste is only one facet of the complex thing we call flavour.

Flavour is, of course, the stock in trade of chefs. For centuries, they have been combining flavours to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. From a scientific point of view, however, flavour is not that well understood. Although there has been a drip-feed of research over the years, there has been no cohesive effort to study flavour as a discipline.

That has just changed. BioMed Central, publishers of open access science journals, launched a new title last month: Flavour. For the first time, there will be a forum for flavour research, whether you're a biologist, a chemist, a neuroscientist, a psychologist, an anthropologist or even a philosopher. Unlike most science journals, which are aimed at a narrow group of specialists and are all but indecipherable to everyone else, Flavour hopes to appeal to a much broader church, including chefs.

Before the research starts pouring in, here is a quick run down of some of the things scientists know about flavour.

'Flavour' is published by BioMed Central (biomedcentral.com)

1. Flavour is evolution's way of making sure we eat a varied diet

This is because we need certain nutrients in order to survive. "There needs to be ways of guiding us through to ensure we get enough of these macro and micro nutrients," says Per Moller, editor-in-chief of Flavour. "Nature solves that problem by endowing us with the ability to sense flavours of food."

Different macronutrients tend to have different flavours. Bread and potatoes and pasta are more similar than different meats are. "If you eat potatoes, after a couple of hundred grams you won't like the potatoes quite as much as you did when you started eating them," says Moller. "So there is a decline in the liking of the thing you have eaten a bit of, but without a decline in liking of other foodstuffs." Or, in science-speak, we possess neuro-biological systems that are sensory-specific satiety mechanisms. "Luckily, we don't need a degree in nutritional science to get a balanced diet," quips Moller.

2. We don't just sense flavour with our tongues

Taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, temperature, trigeminality (the irritating component of odour, as experienced when eating a chilli or horseradish), and interoception (stimuli arising inside the body) are all involved in creating the sensation in our brains that we call flavour.

3. Colour affects how we perceive flavour

Red wines are usually described in terms of red or dark objects and white wines in terms of light or yellow objects. The Independent on Sunday's wine expert, Terry Kirby, described Sequillo 2008, a blended white wine, as tasting of "straw, nuts and honey", and Lirac Clos de Sixte 2006, a blended red, as tasting of "spices, dark chocolate and black fruits". Had those wines been decanted into opaque glasses, even Kirby might have described the flavours differently. Researchers at the School of Enology at Bordeaux University found that when students were given white wine, tinted red with a flavourless additive, and asked to describe it, they tended to use adjectives usually reserved for red wines.

4. Coffee tastes worse in a flimsy cup than a substantial one

Researchers at Rutgers University and University of Michigan found that the firmness of a cup influences people's perceptions of taste and quality. Give them the same beverage in a firm cup and they will prefer the taste to the beverage in a flimsy cup. The subjects were also divided into groups who like to touch things before they buy them (high autoletics) and people who don't like to touch before they buy (low autoletics). Oddly, the people who touch everything when out shopping are least influenced by touch in taste evaluations.

5. Even how food is described can affect its flavour

Protein bars taste less good if they are described as soy protein and yoghurt, and ice-cream is perceived to be more flavoursome when described as full fat or high fat.

6. There is no such thing as a 'tongue map'

The human tongue does not have distinct zones for discerning sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savoury tastes. The so called "tongue map", often seen in primary school textbooks, is based on dodgy research published in 1901 by a German scientist named DP Hanig. Despite the science being debunked back in 1974, some wine-glass makers still make spurious claims that this or that shaped glass will draw wine to a specific part of the tongue. Taste buds actually have 50 to 100 receptors for each taste, including umami (the taste of glutamate).

7. Some people have many more tastebuds than the rest of us

They are called super-tasters. That doesn't mean they're connoisseurs, it means they're very sensitive to bitter tastes. Do you hate the taste of Brussels sprouts? You may be a super-taster.

8. Although it's yet to be utilised, the smell of food matters

Aroma is an extremely important component of flavour and it is detected by receptors in the nose (orthonasal) and the mouth (retronasal). You might think that the brain treats both of these signals the same, but scientists have found, using fMRI brain scans, that different parts of the brain are stimulated depending on whether the aroma is detected by the nose or the mouth. What this means for chefs, though, is not clear yet.

9. Aroma affects the amount of food we put in our mouths

Scientists in the Netherlands developed an experiment where a "custard-like dessert" was fed to volunteers while different scents were presented to their noses. The research, published in the inaugural issue of Flavour, reported that strong aromas lead to smaller bites, suggesting that aroma could be used to control portion size. Forget the fat tax, what we really need are strongly flavoured fast foods.

10. Our liking for flavours develops before birth

A recent study took 24 pregnant women and divided them into two groups. One group was given a diet containing anise, and the second group was given an anise-free diet. Shortly after the babies were born, they were presented with cotton soaked in anise. The babies whose mothers had consumed anise during their pregnancy showed no aversion to the swab, while the babies whose mothers had avoided anise showed a strong aversion to the aroma.

Unanswered questions

One thing science hasn't answered yet is why some flavour combinations work while others don't. One theory is that there is a chemical overlap between flavours that work well together. Heston Blumenthal's unlikely combination of white chocolate and caviar is said to work well because both ingredients contain trimethylamine.

But, it turns out the flavour-sharing hypothesis doesn't have legs. Yong-Yeol Ahn, of Harvard University, and colleagues did a statistical analysis of 56,000 recipes from various regions and found that, indeed, there is a tendency in North American and Western European cuisine to use ingredients that share many flavour compounds.

However, the researchers found that Southern European and East Asian cuisines tend to avoid compound-sharing ingredients, yet few would argue that these regions don't produce delicious food. So we're still none the wiser as to why we like certain food combinations and not others.

But if food is essential to our survival, why did evolution endow us with a dislike for, say, strawberries and liver? Scientists, please send your answers to Mr Moller.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices