As an avid eater, I often wondered how taste worked. This book breaks it down.
First of all, there’s a widespread misconception about the very definition of taste.
Can something taste like cinnamon? Or citrusy? Or like basil?
Those are all aromas that you technically detect with your sense of smell. The only qualities that your sense of taste is capable of detecting are:
- Savory (aka umami)
I initially found this to be very hard to believe. Let science say what it wants. When I eat a strawberry, I would swear that my mouth perceives the strawberry taste – not my nose.
The phenomenon known as retronasal olfaction explains this phenomenon. The sense of smell is triggered when stimulants are taken into the nasal cavity – the large air filled space behind the nose. Each cavity is an extension of the nostril and is activated by stimulants that are introduced by the act of smelling.
There are two ways of smelling: 1) orthonasal olfaction (aka nose-smelling) and 2) retronasal olfaction (aka mouth-smelling).
Retronasal olfaction occurs when the smells of your food are taken in from the back of your throat into the nasal cavity. Since the source of the smell is so close to your palette, it can seem as if you are “tasting” the smells with your mouth.
Photo Credit: WineFolly.com
It follows that our sense of taste actually involves multiple senses – our sense of taste AND smell. But it doesn’t end there – sense of touch, sight, and sound also affect our perception of taste. Savoring what we eat is truly a complete sensory experience.
Sense of Touch
Our sense of touch is responsible for how we perceive the texture of food – which is hugely responsible for how we identify it. We know we’re eating a green pepper not just because of how it tastes, but also in large part because of the texture. In an experiment, various foods were pureed so that they had the same texture – and participants had a very hard time identifying foods without their usual textural cues.
Another way we perceive textures is in the spiciness of a food.
A food tastes spicy when it contains a lot of the substance capsaicin (measured on the Scoville scale). Capsaicin is an irritant that creates a burning sensation – which we perceive through our sense of touch.
Meanwhile, astringency creates a dried out type of sensation. Highly tannic substances – like wine and coffee– create this feeling. Foods that are high in fat can offset this dried-out feeling, which is why adding cream to coffee can result in a satisfying beverage, and why a fatty steak or creamy cheese pairs so well with red wine.
For some people, the sense of texture is superlative to all other sensations. Ben Cohen (the “Ben” in “Ben and Jerry”) is one such individual. As someone who has anosmia (lacking the sense of smell), the role of texture in food is huge. When Ben and Jerry collaborated on making ice cream together, Ben was set on creating the creamiest ice cream possible – which obviously led to quite a bit of success.
Sense of Sight and Sound
Even our sense of sight and sound impact how we experience food. Visual cues prime us for how we expect a food to taste and affect us cognitively. In an experiment with sommeliers, a white wine was died red. When asked to describe the wine, the sommeliers chose words that tend to align with red wines, rather than white wines.
Sense of sound is also very important. When we can hear the crunch of a chip, it registers as being more crisp and fresh. The sizzle of eggs or bacon has the same effect.
The experience of eating is clearly very complex, extending far beyond the basic senses of taste. That being said, the sense of taste in itself is very important. Things that taste bitter tend to be toxic for us – which is why children have a more acute sensitivity towards bitter foods than adults. They are more vulnerable and need to have a stronger adverse reaction to toxic foods than adults do.
For anyone who loves food and wants to learn more about how we experience it, this book is a must read.