Debunking the flavour myth: The fascinating science behind taste
You’re heading home and it just hits you. That sweet scent of freshly baked bread is inebriating. You don’t always give in, but this time you really deserve it - it’s been a long week. As you grab the rustic brown paper bag from the smiling server, you feel the warm steaming loaf under your skin. You sit down and peel back the brown paper, gently. It’s a thing of beauty, really: the perfectly scored and symmetric rounded corners.
A gush of warm, sweet and salty scent fills the air. You gently rip apart a little corner, as you watch the dense richness come apart. As you sink your teeth in, a concert of flavours and textures come to life. A melting sensation of savoury comfort is perfectly balanced by the light crunch of the outer shell.
This is a ritual that involves some magic. The magic of the human brain.
For decades, we were taught that flavour was something that happened on the tongue, and that various areas of the tongue picked up different flavour profiles. Sweet, savoury, salty and bitter: the usual suspects. In schools, it became common to conceptualize the various areas of the tongue as perceiving different flavour profiles. This misconception spread from a study conducted by German scientist David Hänig who published his much-debated findings on the tongue in 1901. While Hänig did claim that different areas of the tongue perceive different flavours to varying degrees, he didn’t actually claim the tongue experienced flavour profiles in blocked off zones. The flavour map of the tongue we can all see in our mind? It’s wrong. Unfortunately, the images published with his work helped catalyse this interpretation of his writings, furthering an incorrect reading of his findings.
Long story short, the tongue perceives flavour as a whole. Scattered on the tongue are little bumps that house our taste buds. Each taste bud is home to the sensory cells which “pick up” on different flavours. These receptor cells connect to neurons that pass on electrical impulses to the brain, which in turn interprets the sensations as taste. Well…not entirely. New research suggests that it is the brain itself which controls taste, connecting each impulse with a flavour. A recent study from Columbia University Medical Centre found that by controlling the areas in the brain connected to taste experiences, the perception of flavour could be altered. For example: if signalling salty to the brain, the brain produced a reading of flavour corresponding to salty foods, even though the food eaten was sweet. Yes, complicated indeed.
Getting back to the fresh loaf. Is the flavour experience only what happens when food hits the tongue? Definitely not. While this finding is fairly recent, it seems intuitive. Flavour is the perceptual experience we have when we eat and drink, and the sense of taste is only one the of the senses involved. In fact, we experience flavour with all our senses. The look of a dish is important, but the smell is essential to experiencing flavour. Just think of this: apples and potatoes taste the same with a blocked nose. The scent of the bakery, the rustic brown paper bag and the warmth of the bread…The sight of the beautiful conical shape, all these things matter.
Gradually, scientists are uncovering how little we know about how we experience flavour and layers of flavour. This reality has given birth to a fairly new discipline: Neurogastronomy, a study that brings together the scientific and culinary worlds to uncover how we experience eating and drinking.
To add to the mystique of flavour perception, scientists are debating whether we can even limit ourselves to thinking about 5 flavours (with Umami becoming the fifth only recently). Calcium content, spiciness, coolness, fattiness, metallicity and carbon dioxide are all being reviewed as part of the research and debate. And in truth, it does make sense: our ability to determine flavour was evolutionarily developed to eat safe, delicious foods that helped us in the quest for survival. Fat would have been of obvious importance to our ancestors, just like it would have been to detect bitter (and potentially dangerous) foods.
We still have a lot to learn about the science of flavour. Food really can be magic, especially when you take the time to experience it to the fullest of your sensory capacity. We will be testing the apply vs potato experiment in studio BOL…so watch this space.