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