What the heck is flavor? Part 2!

In the last blog post I shared information about the sensation of taste; the concept of how it is transduced by our cells from a chemical sensation to a neural message that is sent and received by the brain for processing. This next post will shed more light on how our other senses play a role in how we taste food.

With the popularity of sites like Pinterest, Chowhound, and Yummly, it should be no surprise that we truly do “eat with our eyes!” Here’s why: our brains are visually wired. Our brains love visual content. Did you know that we interpret visual information faster than the language associated with it? This might explain why cookbooks with pictures are far more inspiring than those which only include text.

One key element that rounds out the experience of taste is the color of the meal. For instance, we are attracted to red foods because it signals calories. Food that is red inadvertently gets the mind to believe that it has more sugar and nutrients. This was made apparent with a few studies where subjects perceived white wine as tasting much sweeter because it was sipped under red light as opposed to blue or white light[1].  And white wine that had been dyed red was able to trick enology students in the same way.

While color certainly adds to the experience of the meal, it is considered to be inconsistent and contextual across cultures and current trends. What’s more, our own individual expectations and already-constructed associations similarly impact appetite[2]. While bright pops of color—say, in our cereal bowls or on our plates of 5-star cuisine—used to be considered “trendy” and were widely used, more companies are opting for natural food dyes that impart a more modest hue to our favorite foods. It goes to show how food can be somewhat of a fashion statement.

The pleasant crackle of bacon frying in the pan, the infamous crunch of a potato chip, the little rice puffs that whisper as they get submerged under milk. The melodies that meals make also influence our perception of their deliciousness. According to Charles Spence, award-winning researcher at Oxford University, people use sounds all the time as a way to assess the tastiness of a food[3]. He has conducted numerous studies surrounding artificial application of crunch to potato chips, the enjoyment of a carbonated drink relative to how frequently one can hear bubbles popping, and just how important the crispiness of bacon is for the ultimate enjoyment of a BLT. In every study, there is one confound, and that is this—sound is a crucial part of the eating experience because it indicates texture, quality, and freshness. It helps the brain decode what it is that we are eating in the first place.


[1] Oberfeld, Daniel, Heiko Hecht, Ullrich Allendorf, and Florian Wickelmaier. “AMBIENT LIGHTING MODIFIES THE FLAVOR OF WINE.” Wiley Online Library. June 26, 2009. Accessed December 20, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-459X.2009.00239.x.

[2]Fleming, Amy. “How We Tate Different Colors.” The Guardian. March 12, 2014. Accessed December 20, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/mar/12/how-taste-different-colours.

[3] Sifferlen, Alexandra. “Why We Like Food That Makes Noise.” Time. March 26, 2015. Accessed December 20, 2015. http://time.com/3759953/sound-flavor-taste/.


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