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Science of Flavor

Taste is a perception. It is a unique, multi-sensory exploration defined by much more than our taste buds; all of our five senses and yes, even our life experiences, play a key role in what foods we crave and enjoy.

Humans can determine five simple tastes primarily identified in our mouths: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Professor Gordon Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters, writes, “These simple tastes are hardwired from birth, whereas retronasal smells are learned and thus open to individual differences.” Prof. Shepherd explains aroma is one of the biggest determining factors in how we each perceive flavor. Some say aroma makes up 80% of flavor.

It is important to acknowledge that sight, touch and sound also define our enjoyment or distaste for food. Do you love crunchy foods and despise slimy foods? Dislike foods that are grey in color, but adore an assortment of colorful veggies on your plate? All of these methods of perception work together to make up the perception of flavor. “Humans have a much more highly developed sense of flavor because of the complex processing that occurs in the large human brain,” Prof. Shepherd continues. “It is this high level of processing – including systems for memory, emotion, higher cognitive processing, and especially language – that give us what I call our unique human brain flavor system.”

Flavor has become an experience, often manufactured, either by Yellow No. 5, Red No. 40, or by artificial and natural flavors invented by large "flavor companies", the same companies who make popular perfume fragrances. But lucky for us, technology is not the only innovator in our flavor experience. Some scientists believe that studying neurogastronomy will provide information which can be used to create satisfying meals focused on nutrition.

Top chefs and restaurants, like Chef Maxime Bilet and the Fat Duck Restaurant, are focusing on the ‘off the plate’ dining experience to enhance the natural flavors in our food, using multisensory stimuli to perhaps remind us of our childhood, or beckon us to a seaside town on the Pacific Northwest. The décor, the colors on the walls, the music playing, the weight of the fork, the meticulous plating of the food, all these play into our flavor experience and perhaps harken us back to a pleasant time. 

 “By combining brain studies with food studies, and drawing on the wisdom about flavor exchanged within families every time they eat together, neurogastronomy holds the promise of putting healthy eating in a new scientific basis,” exclaims Prof. Shepherd.

This week's terms

Flavor

"Taste is comprised of the five basic tastes (arguably seven); sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (and mineral and fat), which are primarily identified in our mouths. Aroma refers to the three trillion aromatic compounds floating around us at all times that we observe through our noses (apparently space smells like raspberries). Texture, color, and sound all contribute to the sensory triggers that determine our understanding, our pleasure, impartiality, and distaste of food. All of these but especially taste, aroma, and texture--combine to form what we know as flavor. Flavor is the sum of the sensory stimuli that allow us to form a basis for judgement in any given food related experience." - Chef Maxime Bilet

Neurogastronomy

"Neurogastronomy is the study of how the brain creates the perception of flavor, and how it matters for human culture. It includes all the disciplines relevant to eating, including chefs and the culinary arts, molecular biology, neuroscience, psychology, human evolution, and child development, especially brain mechanisms involved in learning and memory, emotions, motivation, and reward. It supports concerns in medicine over eating healthy food, and curing unhealthy habits such as food and drug addictions, obesity, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. It seeks to inform public policy in nutrition, and economic concerns regarding sustainable agriculture and climate change." - GM Shepherd, Yale University Medical School

Terroir

Flavor + character of produce = climate + geography + farming practice

Craveable Wellness

It starts with the care taken from farmers/growers/artisans and lands in the creative mind and skilled hands of chefs, to create healthful food that is both craveable and memorable. Culinary techniques are shifting to deliver wholesome meals that satiate with FLAVOR vs. volume of food on a plate. Craveable Wellness debunks the myth that healthful food lacks flavor & mainstream appeal. It is a belief that seasonal inspired, healthful & nutrient dense food should and can taste amazing & is what consumers will crave! It is, as the future of our food world should be – a greater currency placed on the quality of our food offerings. - Chef Rob Corliss, A.T.E.

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