comedy · food · funny · science

Taste vs. Flavour

Helen! Speak to me! I yell internally. Usually Coffee Mug Clarke will say something wise and eloquent back in her soothing low tone of voice unlike any other. This time her wisdom came in the form of a Facebook notification (THANKS HELEN!) reminding me of a fine dining degustation meal I said I would attend later on this week. And by degustation, I mean 3 course and by fine dining I mean a $15 lunch served at my local polytechnics training restaurant. (Still, for a poor student, it may as well be a Michelin star restaurant). But what former leader of New Zealand in mug version was making apparent was a question I also often ask;

What’s the deal with fancy food?

Well Helen, to answer that we first need to explain the difference between taste and flavour.

“The sensation of flavour is actually a combination of taste and smell,” says Tom Finger, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver Medical School.  “If you hold your nose and start chewing a jelly bean taste is limited, but open your nose midway through chewing and then you suddenly recognize apple or watermelon.”

This is because as you chew, you force air through your nasal passages, carrying the smell of the food along with it. Without that interplay of taste and smell, you wouldn’t be able to grasp complex flavours. Instead you’d be limited to the basic taste sensations picked up chemically by the tongue: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami (Japanese for savoury)

A tip for truly tasting your food is to exhale while chewing. This delivers tasty morsels of the food to your olfactory receptors to snack on and allows for a much clearer picture of what you’re eating.

Smell and taste contribute to our enjoyment of life by stimulating a desire to eat which not only nourishes our bodies, but also enhances our social activities, food is known to taste better in the company of others. When smell and taste become impaired, we eat poorly, socialize less, and feel worse. Smell and taste warn us of dangers, such as fire, poisonous fumes, and spoiled food.

Memories play a huge role in smell perception. A smell can vividly bring back a memory from the past, but our noses are also always on the pursuit for new smells, as new smells are what leads to the nostalgia. The complex combination of flavours in fancy foods can reward us with the pleasant feeling of nostalgia and also the pleasant knowledge that this moment will later become nostalgia.

The strong, unique strong flavours in gourmet food might help some of us lose weight.  A gene called the bitter receptor gene found in about 70% of the population allows our bodies to form the chemical PROP, short for 6-n-Propylthiouracil, affects the gene holders perception of bitter foods, making them taste far more bitter than non-gene holders do. The PROP gene is not only associated with stronger bitter flavours but also tasting food as sweeter, spicier and even fattier.

What this means is that people lacking the gene seek out flavour enhancers to fill the gap. They consume more added fats, salad dressings, spreads, and margarines, and overall, more calories.

So, the strong vinegars and mustards of fancy food may provide a low fat option for non-PROP tasters.

So, Helen, next time you’re filled with a fresh brew of coffee I’ll make sure I make to comment on your flavour instead of your taste.



Agnes Ly, Adam Drewnowski; PROP (6-n-Propylthiouracil) Tasting and Sensory Responses to Caffeine, Sucrose, Neohesperidin Dihydrochalcone and Chocolate. Chem Senses 2001; 26 (1): 41-47. doi: 10.1093/chemse/26.1.41

Finger, T.E. (2009) Evolution of Gustatory Reflex Systems in the Brainstems of Fishes. Integr Zool 4: 53-63.


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