The View From The Mezzanine: R&D Explains Taste

Taste… what is it and how does it work? Our R&D Team takes a closer look at the subject…

What do we mean when we say we “taste” something? Beyond the fact that we all agree that in order to taste something, it requires putting that something into our mouth, how exactly does the process of tasting work? Let’s investigate.

As we all know, taste is one of the five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing). Most people outside of the food industry (and even many within it) are completely unaware that when we taste things, we are actually involving all five of our senses, not only taste. In fact, our taste sense is not even the primary sense involved in tasting. Instead, it is actually our sense of smell that is the most important sense in this regard.

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Consider this: the taste buds, located on our tongue and palate, can recognize five “tastes” – sweet, salty, sour, bitter and “umami” (savory/flavor enhancement). On the other hand, our sense of smell can identify thousands of aromas. Virtually 75-80% of what we taste and recognize as the flavor of a food is the result of what we smell! Only 10-15% is due to what our taste buds register. It turns out that it is the combination of taste and smell that is primarily responsible for what we distinguish as the flavor of any given food (or beverage). In the absence of smell, the ability to distinguish flavors is severely reduced. This should make sense to anyone who has suffered with a stuffy nose for any length of time.

But taste and smell don’t add up to 100%. The other 5-15% of how we recognize a food’s taste is what it feels like (hard, soft, fluffy, rubbery, slimy, etc.) what it sounds like (crispy, soupy, bubbly), what it looks like (we “eat with our eyes” before we put it in our mouth), whether it is hot or cold and whether it is mild or spicy.

So what tastes “good” and what tastes “bad?”

The short answer is “it depends.” How we determine what tastes good or tastes bad is quite a complicated question, because what we like (or don’t like) is as much about “nurture” as it is about “nature.”

Nature refers to all of the genes and hereditary factors that influence who we are – from our physical appearance to our personality characteristics. This includes the five senses. We all have them, but our sensory abilities are as different from person to person as are our looks, our ethnicity, our health, our age or our gender (unless we are identical twins!)

Nurture refers to all the environmental variables that impact who were are, including our early childhood experiences, how we were raised, our social relationships, our education and our surrounding culture.

So, if we think of the senses as being the genetically controlled physiological factors that influence how we taste, we also have to include the psychological factors that impact the foods we choose to eat as well. It’s not just about taste.

What influences make up that list?

  • Advertising and the media
  • Diet and health concerns
  • Cultural upbringing and eating customs
  • Ethnic influences
  • Celebrations and rituals
  • Religious upbringing
  • Peer pressure and social status
  • Mood enhancement and pleasure
  • Ethical concerns
  • Economics
  • Food phobias and fears
  • Fads and trends
  • Etc…

As you can see, taste is an incredibly complex topic. And trying to make foods that appeal to large numbers of people for a long period of time is quite a challenge. The good news is that here at Stonewall Kitchen, we have gotten quite good at it. In spite of all the potential obstacles to creating things that “taste good,” we have been able to prevail over human physiology and psychology and put together a large and varied portfolio of specialty products that people go out of their way to enjoy, time after time. And there is nothing we like better than to delight our many fans and make new ones!

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Next time: The Stonewall Kitchen Tasting Process

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