We have all had these experiences, but have you ever considered why you loved that dish or restaurant?
What makes food “tasty”? Our perception of flavor is a complex combination of both our emotions and our biology.
We experience flavors with our nose, tongue, eyes and even ears! Aromas, flavors, colors and settings can all impact our perception of the eating occasion. Kalsec’s Food Scientists understand this complex interaction and know how to magnify, reduce or modify flavor—crafting tasty dishes that satisfy.
Flavor impacts us both emotionally and physically.
It’s a combination of how we perceive taste, aroma and somatosensory stimuli. However, it’s much more than just these inputs. A food’s appearance and texture, our emotional state while eating and even the ambiance of the restaurant or kitchen where we’re dining all influence our perception of the flavor.
Taste, on the other hand, is detected by our many tastebuds.
We have around 3,000-5,000 taste buds, and each taste bud contains 50-100 neuroepithelial cells that respond to food. While most of these taste buds reside on the tongue, they can also be found in the throat, epiglottis, nasal cavity and esophagus.
The Tale of the Tongue Map
We used to think that different parts of the tongue detect different tastes. Many of us have seen maps showing how our tongues sense sweet at the tip, bitter in the back, and salty and sour at the sides.
It’s not quite that simple.
In fact, all parts of the tongue have receptors for all tastes. How something tastes isn’t just about the food’s individual notes, but how those notes blend together.
Our taste buds recognize the basic taste modalities of sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami.
These basic tastes tell our bodies a lot about what we are eating at a subconscious level. The sweet taste, for example, is associated with carbohydrates, which we need as energy. Salt is associated with minerals, and umami is associated with proteins/amino acids, all of which we need to function and survive. Our bodies know we need these elements—that’s why we enjoy sweet, salty and umami foods.
Meanwhile, our defense mechanisms are raised when we perceive bitter and sour tastes which are associated with toxins and bacteria.
These tastes signal that the food could be harmful, and we may reject it. We can, of course, learn to enjoy sour substances like sauerkraut and bitter items like beer or coffee, but we are typically not born with an appreciation for these two tastes.
With a foundational understanding of these basic tastes, we can then adjust the interplay of taste and flavor using slight modifications.
Sweet substances can be added to suppress perceived bitterness and sourness (which is why so many people add sugar to their coffee!). Salt can modify flavors in a variety of ways, including suppressing our perception of bitterness or enhancing sweetness at low levels and suppressing it at high levels.
Most of us have used sugar and salt in our everyday lives to enhance our food in one way or another. There are more intricate ways to change flavor perception as well, like the use of certain phenolic compounds. For example, chlorogenic acid and cynarin (found in artichokes) can enhance sweetness by suppressing the sour and bitter taste receptors. One of my favorite examples of completely changing flavor perception is the use of miraculin, which comes from the miracle fruit. Miraculin is a glycoprotein that binds to our sweet taste receptors—it actually causes us to perceive sour foods as sweet!
Taste combinations aren’t the only way to change our experience of flavor.
The food matrix itself, the interactions between all elements in a food, makes a difference in flavor perception as well.
In products like mayonnaise or dressings, the emulsified fat can act as a physical barrier to certain taste receptors and dull the perception of taste. This is why extra salt or seasoning is often added to fattier matrices which help to increase that perception.
As a food scientist, this is something that I am always considering when creating a flavor for a customer. I take the base into account and predict how a flavor will be perceived in the final product. Many other factors can change the flavor of food, such as the temperature of the food, the texture of the food, the sound the food makes when you chew—even the color of the plate that the food is served on! Taking all of these variables into account and crafting just the right ingredient mix is the science behind making you go back for the second helping or planning your return restaurant visit.