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What makes eating so satisfying?

Scientists are learning to enhance our enjoyment of food by analysing exactly how we experience it. So how do they deconstruct the multisensory interplay involved?

First impressions

We will only touch food and drink that meets our rigorous aesthetic standards. When it comes to wine, for example, “the looking element is really important,” says Emily O’Hare of London’s River Cafe.

“It gives you clues into ages of wine and if it’s cloudy, that can be a fault,” she says. But it goes deeper than that. The eyes carry greater weight in our brains than the tasting senses, so we often taste what we see, rather than what we’re actually tasting.

Odour is another good clue as to whether something will be delicious, but not always. This is because we smell food and drink twice – on the way into the nose (orthonasal olfaction) and on the way out (retronasal olfaction). The brain processes each direction differently, which is why the famously stinky Epoisses cheese tastes great once it’s in the mouth. And partly why freshly brewed coffee never lives up to that first sniff – although the variation is even greater with coffee because once it is sipped, says Professor Barry Smith of London University’s Centre for the Study of the Senses, “Saliva strips off about 300 of its [approximately 630] volatile molecules.”

With wine, there are actually two layers of flavour in the initial nosing. The first aromas to hit are those such as bubble gum, banana or butterscotch from the most volatile elements that, says Smith, “have probably arisen from fermentation”. Then, after the glass is agitated to break the surface tension, a second set of volatiles is released. “That’s when you get the fruit aroma – raspberry, pear, melon,” Smith adds.

It is easy to confuse the two separate entities of taste and smell, and the latter holds great sway over how something will taste when it reaches your mouth.

For example, westerners associate the aroma vanilla with sweetness (which is a taste – we can’t actually smell sweet) so strongly that if vanilla is added to food, we’ll think it tastes sweeter than it really is. But connections such as this are, adds Smith, “learned by the brain, not by you”. If you are given a drink that has traces of sugar and vanilla that you wouldn’t detect if they were on their own, the two together will taste sweet to you. Unless you’re from Asia, where vanilla tends to be associated with salty food.

Taste buds

When food enters the mouth, taste, smell and touch fuse together to produce that “unique flavour experience,” as Smith has it. So, for instance, you know something is menthol flavoured when you’re getting a minty aroma, bitter taste and cooling sensation.

The old tongue map, which has sweet at the tip, salt either side of the tip, sour further along the sides and bitter at the back, has been roundly rubbished. The current consensus is that tastebuds all over the mouth carry receptors for all the basic tastes, it’s just that there are higher concentrations of those four tastes in their designated areas. As yet, science hasn’t found evidence of an umami-dominated bit of tongue.

The warming kick of alcohol, and explosive burn from mustard, wasabi and horseradish aren’t tastes or smells but irritations. The trigeminal nerve is the main facial nerve and it operates in the nose, jaw and eyes. When the nerve endings in the nose are set off, you will feel a burning and your eyes will water in case they’re under attack. Chillies, on the other hand, trigger pain receptors in your mouth – an altogether different burn….

The Guardian: Read the full article

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