Food Scientists Toy With Your Senses to Fake Flavor. Here’s How They Do It.

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

You don't experience flavor just through your tongue. Smell has a lot to do with it, too, as you probably know from every cold that's ever blocked your nasal passages. But so, scientists think, do texture, color, and even sound. Flavor is something you perceive, the result of many different sensory signals, both before and after you take a bite, connecting in your brain to tell you what you're eating.

For example, studies have shown that milk with added vanilla — which is really an aroma, with no sweetness of its own — tastes sweeter than milk without it. Similarly, people who sip sugar water while smelling a fruity aroma will usually rate the water as sweeter than if they sip it while smelling nothing. The smell of soy sauce has been shown to make foods taste saltier.

Researchers into the psychology of eating and flavor have found that even the sound your food makes — while you chew, or even before you put it in your mouth — can influence your opinion of it. One of the most prolific of those researchers, Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, has put headphones on people to show that they like chips more when the sound of crunching is amplified. When the sound of eating the same chips is dampened, people perceive them as stale. The same goes for soda: The louder the fizz, the better people think it tastes.

A recent study even found that sounds unrelated food can affect how it tastes. People who tasted a sweet liquid while listening to simulated airplane noises rated it less sweet than those who tasted it while exposed to standard ambient noise. Meanwhile, when the same experiment was done with an umami-flavored liquid, the people half-deafened by the airplane noise were the ones who thought it tasted more intense. (This might explain why people like to drink tomato juice, an umami-heavy beverage, on airplanes.)

Color, not just of the food you're eating but also of its plate, affects our perception, too. One well-known study showed that people who tasted white wine that had been dyed red tended to describe it as they would a red wine — they couldn't discern that the wine tasted like white wine. And Oxford's Spence has shown that strawberry mousse served on a white plate tastes sweeter than strawberry mousse served on a black plate.

All these examples are just part of what scientists know about how we experience flavor and how the senses work together, and there's still even more they don't know. For example, does a fruity smell necessarily make something taste sweeter, or does it only do this because we're conditioned to expect things that smell fruity to taste sweet? Or why does loud background noise seem to enhance the umami flavors? And what else might be affecting flavor in ways we don't even know about yet?

The answers — and the knowledge about how flavor works in general — are of interest to more than just food manufacturers and marketers. They also could help create solutions to a number of food-related health issues. Researchers are investigating how food can be made more palatable to elderly people, whose sense of taste and smell dulls with age, leading them to add too much salt (and sodium), or just to not eat enough. Could adding aromas to their food enhance the taste enough to make a difference? At least one study found that adding just the scent of things like roast beef, cheese, or maple to meals at a retirement home led to better immunity and strength in those who ate them. Something similar could be done for cancer patients, who often lose a lot of their sense of taste and smell while undergoing chemotherapy. Other studies have linked obesity to a weaker sense of taste, and there, too, it could be helpful to try to amplify flavor through the other senses.

With flavor being influenced not just by what you taste on your tongue but also by all four other senses, the possibilities for manipulating it are endless, and that could be to our benefit.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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