THE SCIENCE of FLAVOUR
Gourmet Traveller|February 2022
Why do some flavours work well together and others not? It’s all a matter of science, discovers JORDAN KRETCHMER.
JORDAN KRETCHMER

It’s the sensory reaction that can deliver pure joy or abject horror. For chefs, it can define careers. And while it can’t be taught, you can train yourself to appreciate different flavours. So just what exactly happens when you put food in your mouth and why do we all experience it differently?

“Taste and aroma work together to make flavour, but they are in fact different things,” explains molecular nutritionist Dr Emma Beckett. There are five basic tastes that occur in the mouth, which we are all familiar with: sweet, savoury, bitter, salt and sour. At the same time, we experience aroma through our nose.“This gives you the rest of the complexity of the food flavour experience – all the unique flavours like vanilla, chicken or strawberry. These exist in our mind because of aroma.”

Beckett suggests a simple at-home experiment to understand the difference. “Get a bag of lolly snakes and close your eyes and hold your nose. Randomly pull out a lolly snake, without looking and while your nose is held. Take a bite from the snake and guess what flavour you have – if you are holding your nose properly then it will taste sweet but you won’t know what flavour you have – when you let your nose go then you will get the flavour and you can open your eyes and check.” You can also do this with apples and pears, or different types of citrus. This experiment demonstrates just how complex flavour is and how important smell or olfaction is.

According to The Art and Science of Foodpairing, we can distinguish up to 10,000 different odorant molecules associated with fragrances and aromas. This is why we’re terrible at making authentic tasting synthetic flavours, and our ability to discern flavour is unparalleled by technology. Our perception of aroma is also influenced by the presence of water, air, alcohol or fat, plus different temperatures at which we experience it. Then add in our own psychosocial experiences and there’s many layers to the simple idea of something being delicious. Beyond the intricate world of aroma, there are other scientifically established factors that alter the way we taste. “Salt makes most things taste better because it reduces aversive taste signalling, by blocking bitterness and reducing the water activity, which makes all the good flavours stronger,” explains Beckett. Coriander is another curly one, with some people tasting soap-like flavours and others enjoying a zesty, bright herb. It’s not simply a preference that determines this, but rather, genetics.

“We can all have slightly different versions of the DNA that codes for our smell receptors,” says Beckett.

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