Some Weird Fun Filled Facts and Theories about Flavor

Can Flavor be Affected by All 5 Senses? 

What you interpret as flavor includes all 5 senses, plus current mood, plus past experiences.  Huh?

Hardest first:  Sound:  From:, Daphne Maurer a developmental psychologist at McMaster University in Canada tells us this about Synesthesia, which causes a person’s senses to overlap in unusual ways.  Ms. Maurer says a new study of music and taste suggests that we all have a touch of it though “it rarely influences our conscious perception.” So what is “synesthesia”?

Oxford University psychologist Charles Spence studies human senses and how they interact. In recent studies, he had people smell wines and sample chocolate, and then match the different aromas and flavors to different musical sounds.  He found that people tend to associate sweet tastes with high-pitched notes and the sounds of a piano. People match bitter flavors with low notes and brass instruments.

Spence wondered if he could put this finding to use. Could he use music to influence what people smell or taste?

To find out, he conducted another study. He had volunteers eat several pieces of toffee while listening to music. One soundscape was composed of “sweet” sounds, the other of “bitter” sounds.

Spence then asked the volunteers to rate the sweetness or bitterness of each piece of toffee. All of the toffee was the same, but the volunteers perceived the pieces differently.

“We were significantly able to change the rating of the bitterness and sweetness of the food depending on the sound they were listening to,” says Spence.

Vision:  Easy enough.  Color perception in a wine evokes positive and negative affirmations about how the flavor will be perceived.  A dry red dry drinker may get extremely excited if he/she sees a deep, dark wine.  Or perhaps seeing a bottle of Opus One, at a price of $229, which we will be trying tonight.  Hearing that a bottle costs $229 already changes the perception of flavor, doesn’t it?  Back to the sound we go….

Touch:  Simple enough.  In wine, we talk a lot about mouth feel.  For instance, in judging wine compare water, with a simple, thin mouth feel to milk and crème which has a thicker, richer mouthfeel, for many.  From the Huffington Post, I found this interesting snippet on taste and feel: “  Flavor & Mouthfeel

“Flavor, in the technical sense, is defined as the combined sensations of taste (from taste buds) odor, and mouthfeel. Mouthfeel means the way food feels in your mouth. It encompasses texture, moisture level, fluidity, temperature, chewiness, greasiness, astringency, pain (like that from hot chili peppers), and any other tactile experience we get while chewing or swallowing. It may seem strange at first to consider the smell and texture of food to be a part of its flavor, but your brain is already taking into account these things when it’s processing whether you find a food pleasant or not. Take beef jerky for example. If you dug into a bag of beef jerky only to find out that it was dried out and tough, you’d call it “bad” beef jerky. Even if it has the exact same taste and odor molecules as a “good” bag, the terrible mouthfeel ruins it! And that’s true for a lot of foods, like soggy cereal, warm soda, or stale chips.”

Taste:  Taste, right now, is supposedly limited to sweet, salt, bitter, acid, and umami.  Taste is a sensation that sends pulses to the brain when receptors are engaged with food or beverages.

Smell:  Safety first!  Before drinking anything, you will breathe through the nose to see if it is safe to consume and if you have had a past prior experience with it.  A positive past experience allows you to consume the beverage.  A negative experience, and perhaps you will pass on whatever is in the glass.  It is through the olfactory experience in which a lot of flavors are identified:  through aroma!  The olfactory nerves pick up literally thousands of aromas, and it’s the odor aromas that allow you to taste and identify flavors from toasty and nutty to fruity and grassy.

The reason the shape of the glass affects flavor recognition is simple.  Different shaped glasses allow for various aromas to escape both into the nose passageways (nasal odors) and from the back of the mouth (retronasal).

Tie that into past experiences also playing a factor in taste preferences adds yet another wrinkle.  Per Tim Hanni, “It’s difficult to rewire our sensory hardware unless there is some sort of physical injury, metabolism shift, or pharmaceutical interaction, but we can be constantly rewriting our software to incorporate our aspirations and experiences.”  Additionally, “Why you like what you like is determined by a coalescence of immediate sensations, preprogrammed intuitive responses to sensory stimuli and memories from our life experiences all coming together for processing in our brain.”  Translation:  If you got sick of a food or beverage chances are you probably won’t want to consume it.  If an aroma or flavor even evokes a negative memory, such as being forced to cut the grass when little, forced to eat foods when little that you didn’t like, chances are you may not like it as an adult.     Or just the opposite can occur too.  Festive foods at festive times can create positive attractions to foods and beverages with those aromas.

Migration from Sweet Wine to Dry Wine and Why Some Never Switch!

If you want a great read on a neat subject about taste, check out Tim Hanni’s website,  Tim is the second person in the United States to achieve the title of “Master of Wine”.  Tim’s book, “Why You Like The Wines You Like delves into that individual’s variance in taste bud count can play a significant, significant role in what we like and dislike and that high taste bud count folks are much more super sensitive to taste bud stimulation, and makes the case that foods and beverages with high bitters need to be offset by sweetness in order to make the beverage more pleasant.  His research basically blows up all food and wine pairings that we commonly see today.  For instance, dry red wine and steak are supposed to be the perfect pairing, but folks with a whole lot more taste buds than others receive a not-so-tasty metallic finish when pairing the two together.  Cool, huh?  Perhaps restaurants should think of offering sweet Moscato to customers who want something other than a dry red with their steak.  Hey, bottom line revenue got walloped when the sweet person switched to tea instead of the nice, sweeter wine they would have preferred with their meal.

But I digress.

So how do folks migrate from sweeter wines to drier wines?  Part of it can be to aspire to dry wines because “that’s what real wine drinkers drink.”  Too often though, I hear people say, “I used to like sweeter wines, but now, that sweetness is too cloying, too sugary.”  Humans, in general, have weak digestive systems, much weaker than any other animal that I can think of.  Can a dog drink out of a puddle without getting sick?  Can you?  I can’t.

Some amazing research has revealed that if a fruit contains fructose, it is 100% safe to consume.  We can’t seemingly identify any poisonous berries containing fructose.  Putting it simply, I truly believe that we are hardwired to like sweetness, not only because our body can convert it into an energy source quickly but because of its inherent safety.  As I like to say, “If it is sweet, it is safe to eat.”

I very rarely run into the dry red drinker who says they have always liked dry red wines from the start.  Most people seemingly start off their wine-drinking voyage by drinking the white zin’s, Rieslings, Moscato’s, etc.  Aside from wanting to “graduate” to dry reds, I think the phenomenon to migrate to dry red wines over time is tied to food safety and vitamin and mineral recognition.  When starting off drinking wine, sweetness is the crutch to liking wine, to liking something new that’s different.  Then, once the body identifies that wine has some good stuff in it, then the reliance and dependence upon sweetness start to diminish.  Think of sweetness in wine as a crutch.  Once the body gets comfortable with wine, the need for sweetness in order to consume wine diminishes.   Wine becomes an item that is identified as good, regardless of whether it is sweet or not.  At least that’s my theory and I am sticking by it.

 Flavor Balancing:

To modify flavors in wine, use salt and acidity (lemons) to decrease tannins and bitterness and sweetness and umami (savory) to increase tannins and bitterness.  Thanks, Tim Hanni, for this tip!!!



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