Believe it or not, taste and flavor are not the same thing. And frankly, most people misspeak when they talk about taste and flavor. Here we give you a short primer on taste vs flavor. This way, you’ll be in the know just like the food and nutrition professionals who talk about these types of things day in and day out. (See, we look out for you!) At the next dinner party you attend or host, you’ll be the one making the educated comments about food taste and flavor!
Taste and Flavor Defined
Most of us have heard of the “basic tastes.” You know, sweet, sour, salty and bitter—the four tastes we learned about in grade school. Perhaps you were even shown a “map” of the tongue, which indicated particular, distinct areas of the tongue where we taste specific tastes. (By the way, the whole “tongue map” thing isn’t used anymore, as science has revealed that our ability to taste different tastes isn’t limited to just certain defined areas on our tongues. It was an interesting idea, but not correct.) Anyhow, more recently, umami was confirmed as the fifth taste. We sense these five basic tastes through taste receptors, which are found in our mouths and throats (umami taste receptors have also been found in the GI tract).
Flavor differs from taste in that it relies not only on our ability to sense tastes, but also on our ability to smell aromas. In fact, smell is thought to be responsible for the majority of our perception of food flavor. Have you ever noticed that having a stuffy nose decreases your ability to perceive flavor in your food? It does! Aroma is so central to our enjoyment of food that many times we simply lose desire to eat when we cannot smell our food and experience its full flavor impact. You can demonstrate this concept easily by using the now classic “jelly bean experiment.” For this simple experiment, you close your eyes, hold your nose closed and then pop a jelly bean into your mouth and chew it while keeping your nose closed. Chewing for several seconds does not make it any easier to discern what flavor the bean is (and assuming you had your eyes closed, you wouldn’t be able to guess its flavor by seeing its color either). When you unplug your nose you then let experience the jelly bean’s flavor because aroma molecules are sensed as air passes through the mouth up to the nose. It’s a fun little experiment that demonstrates the importance of aroma in the perception of flavor.
The Recipe as a Flavor Formula
Given what you now know about flavor and how it is perceived, it’s interesting to think about how making flavorful food depends on a cook’s skill at combining the five basic tastes, as well as modifying ingredients that provide particular aromas. The flavor of a specific dish is a unique amalgam of tastes and aromas (as well as other things like texture and sensation such as spiciness), akin to a scientific formula of sorts. Dishes with varying ingredients just will not taste identical to each to each other. There is also the matter of individual variation to consider when examining flavor. The experience of flavor varies from person to person. The degree to which aroma factors into our perception of flavor is individualized, as is all sensory information that we receive. What tastes very salty to one person may not taste that way to the next, for example.
Modifying Food Flavor
Given the individuality of our taste perception, combined with the fact that our sense of taste diminishes with age — for some more than others — and adding in the confounding effects of the medicines we may be taking, it’s no wonder that we seek to modify the flavor of our food. Making food taste better for an elderly person is a far different game than trying to entice a 4 year old to eat something he or she routinely rejects. There are some common modifications, of course, including upping the herb/spice ratio or adding some extracts. Incorporating umami-packed ingredients in a dish, such as adding in some MSG, soy sauce, or topping the dish with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese can all be useful.
Many times, it takes a combination of modifications to result in a recipe that “works” and also appeals to the eater. One must be willing to experiment with a variety of flavor modification techniques in order to learn the ins and outs of cooking to achieve a desired taste. Knowing how and when to tweak specific ingredients in order to bring out specific tastes (a squirt of lemon juice when a bright, sourness is needed, for example) to balance or enhance a dish are skills that can be learned. Luckily, practice can bring some really tasty rewards.