Updated: Apr 21, 2022
This post I hope to make some comments and observations about taste with some background information that hopefully will be of interest.
Firstly, here’s the big question - “What’s the difference between taste and flavour?”
In answering this question, I would like to dispel an urban myth and in doing so, start to answer the question about taste and flavour.
Who amongst us has heard somebody say that they “can’t taste anything” because of their cold / Upper Respiratory Tract Infection? (For once, let’s keep COVID out of it!). Most of us recognise this statement I would imagine. However, the people who say this are usually wrong. What they have lost isn’t their sense of taste - it’s their sense of smell - as most of the flavour we appreciate is actually due to smell
Given the fact that we can't exhibit an awareness of “taste” and “flavour”, our language usage is therefore pretty poor at supporting any verbal expression of the difference between the two. Our thinking pretty much overlaps in our appreciation of the meaning of the two words.
Don’t believe me - try the classic jelly bean test. Close your eyes to avoid seeing the bean (as the colour would likely give the game away - we’ll talk about the impact of sight later) and pinch your nose (to stop the bulk of your ability to smell). Place a jelly bean in your mouth and taste ….. not a lot!
Your taste buds are being asked to define what’s in your mouth and they pretty much fail at the job - until such time as you unpinch your nose and all of a sudden, due to the smell of the sweet, it becomes obvious what taste you’re experiencing!
What about the different building blocks of taste? Is that enough..?
Taste is pretty much sweet/sour/salty/bitter & umami. However, this ignores what it feels like (“mouthfeel”) visual cues (just try drinking our smiling Walter White cocktail at the bar which is called white but is blue in colour and tastes of orange - you’ll be blown away!) and especially smell.
So why don’t we consider the possibility that flavour is the sum of all the five senses - i.e. sight, sound, smell, touch and smell. It's important to factor these senses into the equation too, but let’s think a little bit about genetics too.
Genetics, tonic water and sugar
Genetics play a large part in our “taste-ability”. Consider the sad case of cats, who have lost the genetic capacity to detect sugar! Whilst we can taste sugar well (sometimes too well), humans are pretty much divided into three taste groups and it seems to be centred around an ability/sensitivity to be able to taste bitterness.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to me - having made a bar where we sell a lot of gin - it soon became obvious that there are a certain number of customers who love our gins but can’t stand the bitterness of the classical tonic mixer. Instead, they always opt for lemonade as their mixer. These people are likely more sensitive to bitter tastes. So if somebody says they don’t like a G&T - try a gin and lemonade!
BUT - it doesn’t stop there for the gin and lemonade drinkers, because the bitterness involves lemonade too, as we need to consider the impact of artificial sweeteners.
There’s a catch in assuming a real sugar can be 100% replaced by artificial sweetener- as the artificial stuff isn’t the same. No matter how much saccharin you put in your drink, it can never taste sweeter than a 10.1% sugar solution. This is a problem for soft drink manufacturers because a regular coca-cola measures between 10.4% to 11% on the sugar scale depending upon brand.
However, artificial sweeteners not only trigger sweet receptors but also bitter receptors (they’re pretty closely related) and this accounts for the often heard complaint of the "sweetened" liquid tasting bitter. (So some people dump the tonic bitterness but are presented then with the “bitterness” of the artificial sweetener.)
To widen the difference awareness between natural sugar and artificial sweetener also consider how quickly and for how long something tastes sweet! Huh ....?
Human awareness of sweetness from natural / real sugar reaches its peak in about 4 seconds and then trails off after 10 seconds. Aspartame, as an example of an artificial sweetener, becomes sweet a second later but the taste lasts 4 seconds longer (i.e. 5 to 14 seconds). So yes - it tastes very different to some.
The influence of salt
Then there’s salt - a big contributor to taste but also to raising blood pressure. Too much isn’t good for your blood pressure but salt, used well, brings out the flavour of foods. However, there’s not much that ‘looks like’ sodium to human physiology, To be without sufficient sodium is just as bad for us as too much.
Sadly, if a food has less salt in it - it doesn’t taste as good. So food manufacturers love using salt to get people liking (and therefore coming back to buy more of) their food and so they choose one of three ways to give us the sodium hit….
Use a replacement “salt” - not a great option (potassium is similar to sodium chemically but is dangerous in too large amounts and has a bitter taste to it too. Don’t even think about Lithium because that is dangerous (life-threatening) stuff to the human body.
Alternatively use the same amount of salt but in a different way. So, some manufacturers sprinkle big salt grains on top of the food like a pretzel / crisp etc - giving a quick salt hit from superficial salting. (disclaimer - don’t put too much salt on your food - IT IS BAD FOR YOU!)
Thirdly, some clever people are adding salty smells - or smells we associate with salt - into the food to trick us into thinking it has more salt within! (Although there’s a limit to the amount of anchovy I can tolerate!)
Putting a name to a smell….
As mentioned above, putting a name to a smell is not something that we are good at. Familiar smells such as orange juice / coffee, peanut butter are difficult to identify accurately with taste alone. (Don't pretend this doesn't include you - if you undergo a tasting session of unseen foods with taste / smell alone, no visual, tactile, auditory stimulus - you WILL struggle!)
Why? Pretty much because of that hard wiring that we talked about in last week’s blog. Sight and sound go to the powerful brain areas and this involves conscious thought. See something that is orange in colour and you’ll expect to taste an orange taste.
Smell is different. The nerves that detect smell go straight to preconscious brain areas - bypassing conscious thought - which helps show why smell evokes emotion without knowing why.
Language also plays a part. We are, to a person, pretty useless at describing taste accurately and we usually describe smells by saying what they are like (remember last week’s blog - like Xmas / holidays etc) as we don’t have words that accurately describe the specifics of taste and flavour. On the one hand, if I ask you to tell me what colours are on a Union Jack flag - you’ll say red, white and blue. But don’t expect to give me such a succinct answer when I ask you to describe a smell…!
Should we believe the experts…?
In the 1980’s a clever chap called David Laing designed an experiment where volunteers were presented with familiar odours eg cloves, orange and spearmint. Initially single odours were introduced and people were pretty good at distinguishing them apart.
Bamboo - not much complexity here...!
Mixtures of two (known) smells presented at the same time were pretty well distinguished as the separate entities too, but it was when three (known) smells were presented together that things started to get less well detected and when five smells were mixed, not one of the volunteers was able to itemise all five elements correctly. In fact three or possibly four smells / odours was the limit of identification.
So the next time somebody describes a wine as having six or seven different flavourings - interpret their comments with care. By that - whilst some wine experts are pretty good at working out flavour / taste, I would suggest some scepticism in placing too much accuracy from the great long descriptions. Many Sommeliers are truly fantastic at their process of tasting, but much of this relies upon taste by association, knowing where the wine is grown and therefore being able to associate with known geographical characteristics rather than relying on taste alone.
Here's a cool thought.....The combinations of smells don’t always represent the sum of constituent parts. i.e. 1 + 1 doesn’t always = 2.
As an example, if we combine the smell of caramel with that of violet (think of parmaviolet sweets) , what you smell isn’t (parmaviolets and caramel) but pineapple!
Similarly, geranium smell + baked potato smell = fish
The Impact of Smell on Taste
Studies have shown that certain smells influence taste despite the fact that the smell has no detectable taste. Sugar tastes sweeter when teamed up with caramel odour. Similarly vanilla and strawberry make sugar taste sweeter too.
There are cultural differences here though, as caramel is more used in savoury dishes in some Asian countries, and so caramel isn’t recognised or tasted as sweet by some Asian populations. Similarly, benzaldehyde is the main component of almond aroma. Whilst this enhances a sweet taste for Westerners (thinking of pastries / cakes / tarts), it enhances umami taste for Japanese people because almond is a large component of savoury pickles.
So what’s the effect of sound…? (Are we sound snobs!)
Don't believe me.... Prepare to change your mind....
A classic experiment with crisps acts as a great example for the impact of sound on flavour. Crisps are crunchy - and yet they come in all shapes and sizes so an experiment will be hard to standardise for crisps as different shaped crisps give different sounds of crunching - unless you use the same crisp time and time again - like Pringles which are essentially homogenised potato shaped the same way for each and every crisp.
So some clever people used this sort of crisps and cleverly employed testers with headphones playing varying sound levels as they ate them. It was found that the “crunch” was a key part to the flavour as the volunteers recorded that the crisps that gave a louder crunchier sound (ie less masking from quieter music from the headphones) were tastier!
We are sound snobs too. It has been shown that coffee is rated 10% tastier if the coffee drinker hears an expensive coffee make being used to make the coffee out of sight. (Spoiler alert - same coffee in the experiment but playback of recorded sounds to pretend espresso being made!)
Then there’s oysters - which are “tastier” (saltier!) when eaten with a background of sea sound recordings being played back whilst eaten.
Guess what - putting salt on oysters!
Other examples of sensory influences on taste
Fifty volunteers were asked to evaluate three different yoghurts in identical bowls. However the yoghurts were the same and the bowls were cleverly made to have different weights. Guess what ? The yoghurts in the heavier bowls were recorded as tasting richer and better tasting than those served in the light bowls.
It doesn’t just stop there with plates though. As one trial showed that strawberry mousse tasted sweeter when served on a white plate rather than a black one.
Taking colour and therefore visual clues further, led to a fascinating experiment in France, at the University of Bordeaux to be exact and provided a real shocker for flavour being influenced by sight.
A total of fifty four wine students were given three glasses of wine - two red and one white. Remember that this is France - Bordeaux - so expectations of the people (learning to be sommeliers) tasting the wine those attending a course on wine tasting - is high…!
Is it white or red...?
Imagine the scene - lots of sniffing and careful notes took place as the students were asked to describe the aroma of the three wines. Inevitably the reds were described in similar terms whereas the white was described in completely different terms. Of course this would happen - it's red wine vs. white wine - anybody knows that.... or do they....?
The second red wine was actually the white wine presented as the only white, but it was coloured to be identical to the 'real' red wine, with an odourless food colouring. Yet the descriptions of the students associated the two reds together and the white wine was described as completely different.
Essentially, changing the colour led to a change in flavour.
Thought for the day....
As a parting shot for today, and summarising the suggestion that flavour is impacted by ALL of our five senses and not just “taste” - consider the concept that “foods don’t contain the flavour but instead, foods contain the molecules that stimulate our brains to create the flavour for us”.
More tasting fun next week.