The Forgotten Senses of Flavor

Chefs rely on frequent tasting of sauces and stews to ensure the flavor of their dishes are just right. While taste is an important aspect of flavor, research shows the keys to a memorable meal go beyond that. How food looks, smells and even sounds can make all the difference.

Sight

People can "see" flavors before actually tasting a food or beverage, says food sensory analysis expert Rena Shifren, PhD, president of ProSense Consumer Research Center in Tucson, Ariz.

To prove her point, she had a room of attendees at an Institute of Food Technologists meeting identify a variety of different-colored jellybeans — first with their eyes open and then with their eyes closed. Flavor identification was easy when they could see the jellybeans, but more difficult when they had to rely solely on smell and taste.

Smell

People first smell the aroma of a food or beverage in anticipation of the flavor they are about to taste. Once consumed, vaporized volatile organic compounds from the food or drink are released and travel up the retronasal passage to the olfactory bulb, where the compounds are translated to flavor by the brain — "I'm eating a strawberry!" the brain thinks. But, if the sense of smell isn't working — say, due to a cold — that process breaks down and foods can taste bland.

Hearing

While it may seem a bit outlandish, the sounds that a food creates during the process of eating can also enhance or detract from flavor. Just think of the last time you heard a crunch or a sizzle from your food and how it affected your desire to eat it — or eat more of it. Sound gives our brains clues to the texture of a food, which might translate to freshness or quality in our brains. A bite of crisp, juicy apple or one that's soft and mushy — which would you prefer?

Experimental psychologist Charles Spence, a professor at Oxford University and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, believes sound is forgotten as a flavor sense. "What we hear while eating plays an important role in our perception of the textual properties of food, not to mention our overall enjoyment of the multisensory experience of food and drink," Spence told Food Navigator.

In his laboratory, Spence evaluated how subjects perceived crispness and freshness by manipulating the sounds of noisy foods using headphones. Louder and higher frequency sounds were associated with fresh, crisp foods, while quieter and diminished frequencies were linked to stale, soft foods.

The sound of food is an area that food marketers could take advantage of for improving the overall eating experience, especially for aging adults, Spence advised.

So there's more to eating than just the taste of food on our tongues. We also eat with our eyes, our noses and our ears! Together the five senses act like a symphony in our brains and make eating a pleasurable act.

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Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RD
Millennial Nutritionist, Gillean Barkyoumb, MS, RD, is a talented speaker, writer, presenter, and media enthusiast based out of Gilbert, Arizona. Being a millennial herself, Gillean has a unique interest in investigating why her generation has a fascination with food and how that passion can be a driving force in changing the food environment of the world to be healthier and more ecofriendly. Read her blog, Millennial Nutrition, and connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.