The Science of Taste

An exploration of the global flavour industry and the mechanics of how we taste.

Taste and smell are two of the five senses that work in tandem to create a singular sensory sensation.

In this episode of TechKnow, we examine new research into the psychology of taste and smell and how past memories can instantly be remembered with just a whiff. We also look at how memorable flavours are created to support a $25bn global taste industry. 

Flavour is something that evokes a lot of emotions.

by Andre Stuker, marketing manager, Givaudan

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami are all senses of taste, “sensations that happen in the mouth,” explains Hildegarde Heymann, a sensory scientist at the University of California – Davis.

But, when scientists talk about taste, they’re talking about an experience cobbled together as much from scent, suggestion and memory as from the nerve endings in the mouth and tongue. 

“So much of what we perceive about food is actually smell and not taste. We refer what we smell, to our tongues, and that situation happens and we think we’re tasting it, but we’re actually smelling it,” says Heymann.

The brain and emotion play a big part in how we perceive taste and smell. People can taste the same dish differently, depending on their genes.

But there’s a deeper level to taste and smell.

“Smell has an enormously emotional effect,” Heymann explains. “We all have a smell – or a series of smells – that, when you smell them, they put you back in some happy place that you used to be, usually as a child … And those emotions are so strong that even if you know that this is happening it will still make you happy.”

Working to find that happy smell or taste is what drives the global taste industry.

“Taste is not something that is globalised. It’s something that’s very local, it depends on how you’ve been brought up, it depends on your culture, it depends on your food,” explains Andre Stuker, a marketing manager at Givaudan, the largest flavour and fragrance company in the world. 

The Science of Taste – TechKnow

“An orange lemonade in Iran may be very, very different than an orange lemonade in Nigeria. And this is where the nuances and the difference in profiles come into play,” says Stuker.

A flavourist decides what kind of smell they want and then the samples are taken back to the lab and used to try and match those flavours.

Once a specific flavour is identified, it will pass through a Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), which separates the many components that are there in order to blend and re-create that profile, notes Geoff Marshall-Hill, Givaudan’s principle flavourist.

According to Stuker, Marshall-Hill’s feedback from the lab is an important part of the process. “Sometimes, the ideas or the evolution of the flavour comes indeed from a flavourist, where we try out new things, where we try out new profiles and then play it back to the consumers.”