Sweet or Sour??

Why do people have different reactions to the same food? One person may love chocolate while another may find it too sweet. Some people love cheese while others find its taste and smell unappealing. And some people always want vanilla in their ice cream while others would rather avoid vanilla and choose another flavor instead.

The reason for these differences is due, in large part, to the taste of food, but there are other factors, too. The smell of food, its texture, its color, and its temperature also contribute to what is more generally known as the “flavor” of food. The combination of all of these factors tells us whether food is delicious, good, unpleasant, or downright disgusting.

Why we enjoy food

The flavor of food is due mostly to how it tastes and smells. When you eat, the most immediate sensation is taste. But you actually smell food, too. If you hold your nose while you eat, you will notice that some foods will taste different.

There are five taste sensations: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. The umami taste was formally recognized in 1985 after scientists debated for a long time about whether umami was a basic taste. In 1985, they agreed that umami was the fifth basic taste. It is associated with savory foods, which include meat, tomatoes, and a food additive called monosodium glutamate.

Smell is as important if not more important than taste. For instance, when people who have a head cold try to taste salsa and chips, they feel the textural crunch of the chips and the tingle of the hot peppers on their tongues, but they cannot taste the flavor-rich salsa with its onions, tomatoes, and peppers because they cannot smell it.

When we chew, aromas are released that activate our sense of smell by way of a special channel that connects the back of the throat to the nose. If this channel is blocked, such as when our noses are stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors cannot reach sensory cells in the nose that are stimulated by smell. So, we don’t enjoy foods the same way. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have no flavor.

Smelling food is different from smelling roses. To smell a rose, you would bring the flower close to your nose and inhale the flowery scent. To smell food, the aromas either go directly through your nose or enter the back of your nose—as you chew and swallow food, in which case the aromas add to the taste of food.

Image by Mike Ciesielski

Taste and smell contribute only partially to the flavor of food—other factors include texture (crunchy or soft food) and temperature (hot or cold food). For instance, some people like to put fruit in the fridge and eat it cold while others prefer to eat fruit at room temperature. And some people would only eat cooked carrots while others like to eat them raw.

Also, the color of food can affect its flavor. Dark red beverages need less sugar to achieve an acceptable level of sweetness because people perceive dark beverages to be naturally sweeter. In this case, what you expect influences the taste of food.

In a classic experiment, French researchers colored a white wine red with an odorless dye and asked a panel of wine experts to describe its taste. The experts described the wine using typical red wine descriptors rather than terms they would use to evaluate white wine, suggesting that the color played a significant role in the way they perceived the drink.

The flavor of food also changes depending on how it is prepared or cooked. Take tomatoes, which have a soft texture and are bought in the store at room temperature. Add garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper, cook them for a while, and you have spaghetti sauce. Dry the tomatoes, and you get crunchy sun-dried tomatoes. Refrigerate them, and you can chop them into a salad. The possibilities are endless, and the flavor is different each time.

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