The Science of Flavor
Taste is something we take for granted every day, yet how it creates flavor remains unknown to most of us. But what creates that delicious taste experience?
Scientists have long described taste in terms of four qualities: saltiness, sourness, sweetness and bitterness. Recently however, umami has joined this repertoire – read on to discover more about its complex makeup!
Exploring the Unexpected Combinations That Delight Your Palate
Reaching a balanced meal requires more than choosing complimentary ingredients; you also must consider how their various textures, temperatures, and olfactory properties interact with one another. For instance, chocolate’s sweetness can be balanced out when combined with savory foods like garlic and thyme in sauteing together; experimentation will reveal unexpected combinations that allow you to craft unique taste experiences that delight both yourself and your guests!
Taste encompasses an amalgamation of senses: olfactory (retional odor), somatosensory (touch and texture), and gustatory (flavor). Flavor results from interactions between chemicals with receptor cells on our tongues, and taste buds in our mouths; so it is helpful to think of flavor as a “complex whole,” rather than as isolated sensation. Our mouths, noses and brains all work together to detect combinations of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami tastes characteristic of particular foods.
Green apples contain an intriguing blend of sugary, acidic, and savory compounds which create their distinctive taste and aroma. Food producers rely on this chemical profile to preserve fresh green apple flavor when producing preserved products; we ourselves enjoy enjoying green apple candy and soda due to this same unique chemical profile.
Our palates are highly adaptable and influence by cultural preferences, for instance some may enjoy bitterness while others find it unappetizing; similarly for sourness and sweetness.
As our understanding of flavor evolves, so will our ability to use that knowledge to explore novel culinary innovations. For instance, deconstructing and reinventing classic dishes through techniques such as spherification – where liquids are transformed into gel-like spheres – could offer new ways of experiencing familiar tastes.
As our sense of flavor continues to change, it is vital to stay current on its latest developments. Since 1940, scientists at the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) have made major strides in understanding how the chemical essence of flavor is created in foods by developing instruments to detect trace amounts of organic compounds found in them and analyse their chemical makeup – breakthroughs which have improved processed food quality while simultaneously monitoring food safety.
Discovering the Chemical Essence of Flavor
Flavorful foods and beverages come from chemicals with unpronounceable names but which are completely natural. Discovering their chemical essence provides a basis for creating new foods and beverages.
Scientists studying the flavor of maple syrup were surprised to find it consisted of multiple flavor compounds rather than just one, much as pineapple contains different chemicals that contribute its distinctive scent and taste.
These chemicals can be extracted in the laboratory, though their presence in trace quantities makes it hard for human senses to detect them. Scientists at WRRC therefore developed methods for analyzing these trace chemicals and creating foods with specifically controlled flavors.
Flavor chemists must experiment with hundreds or even thousands of combinations of known and unfamiliar chemical ingredients in order to craft an artificial flavor that replicates that found in nature. Once this task is accomplished, they must then sniff and taste their product to verify its success.
Flavor laboratories utilize cutting-edge equipment to assess what’s happening. For example, chemical analyzers transform samples into gases which are then separated by electrical current; this provides a detailed record of each component that makes up their sample, including any chemicals responsible for its flavor or aroma.
Chemists may utilize a gas chromatograph, which is a type of spectrometer designed to identify volatile chemical substances. This device can help pinpoint which element within a mixture produces specific flavors by isolating each component part and finding them independently.
A chemist can then attempt to replicate that chemical in the laboratory. For instance, an apple could mimic orange flavor. But sometimes this doesn’t work out because the overall effect is greater than its individual components.
Cincinnati-based company annually sends a team of internal scientists and creative experts on an exploratory mission called TasteTrek around the globe in search of unique scent molecules for its products. Their most recent tour took them into Central African rain forests where they used vacuum-driven instruments to capture molecular essence of various plant specimens in hot air balloons before returning home with samples that may become products.
The Rise of Umami
Sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors are easy to identify; however, umami may be harder. That was until 1908, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered umami while searching for what made his wife’s soup stock so enjoyable. He discovered it while working with kombu dashi (seaweed broth), which contained meaty flavors not detectable by traditional salty sweet sour and bitter taste buds; Ikeda coined the term “umami” to describe this new taste experience and identified its amino acid source: free glutamate.
Glutamate, commonly found in mushrooms, tomatoes, beef and Parmesan cheese as well as many other foods, is a naturally occurring flavor enhancer known as glutamate that plays an essential role in creating umami flavors in food products. But the same effect can also be accomplished artificially using hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. Ikeda pioneered this technique and created monosodium glutamate (commonly referred to by its initials MSG). Although MSG often attracts negative opinions among some individuals it remains an effective way of adding umami without adding sodium or fat content – just don’t expect an increase!
Umami not only enhances other flavors, but it can also make low-fat food taste richer, making sauces, soups and broths lighter in calories. As Romans found pleasure in fermented fish sauce called garum and now crave ketchup! People have long taken advantage of its umami powers.
Umami’s popularity in the West is on the rise, where chefs are experimenting with exotic ingredients and flavors. After experiencing travel disruption due to Covid-19 pandemic, people started looking for ways to achieve an exotic taste experience at home; many brought back ingredients like shiitake mushrooms and fish sauce from Asia; they’ve also explored citrus varieties like blood orange and kumquat.
Scientists studying the chemical essence of flavor take an interdisciplinary approach when exploring its chemical makeup: biology, chemistry, neurophysiology, psychology and anthropology are among those disciplines who examine it. Understanding that taste encompasses much more than simply our physical senses can detect; rather, it involves emotions, memories and cultural context as well as nutritional value – these experts acknowledge this complex web.
Cultural Flavor Differences
Taste preferences in food are influenced by both environmental and cultural factors, with ingredients often available from their environments affecting cooking techniques while cultures dictate perceptions of quality cuisine. Therefore, ingredients commonly combined in one region might seem completely alien in another; vanilla might be seen more commonly used with desserts in North America and Europe but more frequently found alongside savory meals in Asia.
Different cultures appreciate different aspects of flavor, such as texture. For instance, sea cucumber is considered an exquisite delicacy in China because of its interesting mouthfeel; by comparison, Westerners might find it bland and rubbery. Such distinctions can make an enormous impactful difference when creating unique combinations using multiple ingredients.
Account for these various factors when trying to understand why certain foods taste good or not in certain environments; it is an integral component of seeing taste as a social sense, an aspect which researchers are now more frequently acknowledging .
At Sensient, our flavor technologists work every day on culinary innovation through creating delicious food. A recent Food Business News article suggested it is time for more exotic ingredients and dishes in our cuisine – this kind of culinary reinvention is exactly what Sensient does every day!