Flavor-it’s all in your head!


One of my favorite family traditions is “jelly bean roulette.” Nothing makes a person squirm quite like the question of “is this peach or vomit?” and it is amazing how flavor scientists can stimulate our “smell memories” so accurately. The concept of smell memories is relatively new and is a great example of the nascent field of neurogastronomy. Believe it or not, this field may change the way we interact with our food in the future!


Just as you’d expect, neurogastronomy is all about the brain (neuro) and eating (gastronomy). Coined by neuroscientist & physiologist Gordon M. Shepherd in 2006, it originated as a branch of neuroscience to explain the physiological basis of flavor perception. Now the field is a multidisciplinary amalgam of neuroscientists, physiologists, sensory scientists, food technologists, and chefs. You’ve likely heard of its scientific relative “molecular gastronomy,” which over the past 20 years has ballooned from a niche research area into its own flamboyant cuisine (what can’t they turn into alginate spheres?). But while molecular gastronomy emphasizes ingredients, chemical reactions, and bringing the scientific method into the kitchen, neurogastronomy shifts the paradigm away from food and toward the human-food interface.


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One of the central tenets of neurogastronomy is the multimodality of flavor, meaning any number of sensory inputs – not just taste – can influence flavor perception. For example, earlier this year Science Meets Food featured an article (https://sciencemeetsfood.org/the-science-of-flavor-at-32000-feet/)about how ambient noise in an airline cabin enhances umami perception. Another great example is a now infamous study on wine perception that ruffled a few feathers in the wine world (Morrot et al., 2001). In the study, 54 wine experts were asked to qualitatively describe the aromatic profile of two wines – one red and one white. The catch? Unbeknownst to the panelists, the two wines were identical except for the addition of a flavorless red dye to the “red” wine. Despite the identical flavor profile (i.e., the same molecules reaching the olfactory bulb), panelists overwhelmingly ascribed white wine aromatics (e.g., peach, apricot, apple) to the white version and red wine aromatics (e.g., blackberry, cherry, violet) to the “red” based on color. It turns out that your brain is easily fooled!


The culinary world has already adopted the mentality of toying with the brain to alter the dining experience, and the “Sounds of the Sea” entrée from the English restaurant Fat Duck takes the proverbial cake. Diners are served sashimi – suspended above a bed of sand – with a side seashell hiding an iPod playing atmospheric ocean sounds. This unique experience is reported to increase the perception of freshness as well as taste intensity of the fish while simultaneously slimming diners’ wallets. Others are using neurogastronomy more benevolently to improve the quality of life for populations at risk of malnourishment. This may include those on a course of chemotherapy or an aging baby boomer population (the sense of taste diminishes with age). In fact, this clinical approach was a key cog in the first ever symposium of the International Society of Neurogastronomy held in 2015.


Source: https://onthelowerlevel.com/tag/heston-blumenthal/

But neurogastronomy comprises more than just wacky brain tricks and Michelin-starred restaurants. An understanding of how our brains create and perceive flavor may start coming into the food science conversation more as we continue to reevaluate the healthfulness and sustainability of our food supply. Fooling our brains could be used to reduce sugar or calories in our foods. For example, desserts are reported as being sweeter and more flavorful when served on a white plate rather than a black plate (Piqueras-Fiszman et al., 2012). Ingredients can also be unevenly distributed in a food to trick your brain into thinking they are sweeter than they actually are; in one study sucrose was reduced by 20% without panelists detecting a difference (Mosca et al., 2010)! Researchers in France are attempting to add artificial aromas to healthy food as a means of stimulating reward centers in the brain like junk food does (making broccoli taste like a cheeseburger!).


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As you can see, a lot of thought goes into the foods you eat and there is a big market in improving our diet by altering cues in foods, packaging, and/or marketing. Expect food design and marketing teams to find new and unique ways to touch into consumers’ smell memories in the future. Who knows – maybe within a few years we’ll be playing broccoli roulette!



Ana Carolina Mosca, Fred van de Velde, Johannes H.F. Bult, Martinus A.J.S. van Boekel, Markus Stieger, Enhancement of sweetness intensity in gels by inhomogeneous distribution of sucrose, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 21, Issue 7, October 2010, Pages 837-842,

Gil Morrot, Frédéric Brochet, Denis Dubourdieu, The Color of Odors, Brain and Language, Volume 79, Issue 2, November 2001, Pages 309-320

Gordon M. Shepherd, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and why it Matters (Columbia Press: New York, 2013).

Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, Jorge Alcaide, Elena Roura, Charles Spence, Is it the plate or is it the food? Assessing the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of the food placed on it, Food Quality and Preference, Volume 24, Issue 1, April 2012, Pages 205-208.

Romm, 2016. Adding Fake Smells to Healthy Food Can Convince Your Brain You’re Eating Junk. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/08/scientists-want-to-make-healthy-food-smell-like-junk-food.html

Science Meets Food

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