Taste and smell.
They’re different senses, but they’re more entwined than you might realize.
That’s why researchers are now working on ways to use scent to improve the taste of foods without adding sugar, fat or salt. To understand why this could be a serious breakthrough in food science, you must first understand how closely related scent and taste really are.
Why Does Smell Change the Way Foods Taste?
When we refer to a food’s flavor, what is it that we’re really talking about?
The answer is bigger than you might think. A food’s flavor is actually a combination of its taste, smell and texture. Both smell and taste are a part of what’s known as the human chemical sensing system. Taste does play a big role in flavor, because our tastebuds can detect sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami tastes. There are also sensory cells that live alongside our tastebuds, which help us perceive food qualities such as temperature, creaminess, texture and spiciness.
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But smell is also important to flavor. Air circulates through your nostrils while you chew, allowing you to smell the food inside your own mouth. This is possible because the back of your throat connects your nose and mouth. While you’re eating, your brain receives signals from both your mouth and your nose that allow you to experience the full flavor of a food. However, if air isn’t circulating through your nostrils, you won’t get that smelly sensory information. That’s why food seems to lose nearly all of its taste when you eat it while holding your nose.
A popular experiment involves closing one’s eyes and tasting a variety of jelly beans. When you can rely on both taste and smell, you can guess the flavors fairly accurately. But run through the test a second time while you also pinch your nose and you’ll find the sensory information on which you are basing your guess is reduced drastically.
How Can Scents Change the Way We Eat?
Scientists have recently begun researching how to use scent to make certain foods more palatable.
Recent studies have found that certain natural aromatic molecules can trick people into believing a food contains more fat, sugar or salt than it actually does. This is especially useful for foods made with reduced amounts of fat, sugar or salt, since their taste is often underwhelming to consumers.
One such study involved participants eating different types of flan (a type of custard). Researchers wanted to see if participants could be tricked into thinking the flan tasted saltier by adding the aroma of ham to the dish. “The researchers found that the ham aroma, even though it contained no salt, increased the perception of saltiness of the flan,” a release on ScienceDaily.com stated. A similar result was achieved using fruit juice and an aroma closely associated with sweetness and sugar content.
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“Most consumers know that they should be eating more healthful foods made with reduced amounts of fat, sugar and salt. But this is problematic because these are the very ingredients that make many of the foods we like taste so delicious,” says Thierry Thomas-Danguin, Ph.D. “Based on our lab work, we’ve come to believe that aromas can help compensate for the reduction of fat, sugar and salt in healthful foods and make them more appealing to consumers.”
Why Do We Need Scents to Make Foods Healthier?
Over the past couple of decades, food manufacturers have been overloading their products with massive amounts of sugar, salt and fat. When we eat such products on a regular basis, we get addicted to them.
“Highly processed foods can taste really good. A little too good. This is because they’re designed to elicit maximal levels of pleasure and consumption,” says Ryan Andrews, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. Over time, our brains can get addicted to the effects highly processed foods have on our bodies, so we seek them out. A recent study in the scientific journal PLoS ONE concluded that “highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (i.e., high dose, rapid rate of absorption), appear to be particularly associated with ‘food addiction.'”
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Food manufacturers are well aware that many people are now looking for healthier options, so they’ve begun focusing on creating products that are lower in sugar, salt and fat. However, consumers often find the flavor of these products unappetizing or underwhelming due to the fact that they’re accustomed to the traditional versions. If aromas can trick their brains into thinking a product has more sugar, salt or fat than it actually does, they will find it more palatable. The result is more people willing to eat healthier versions of foods.