Multisensory Flavor Perception
Multisensory Flavor Perception
There’s so much more to flavor than just the five things that your tongue can taste. That’s right, your tongue is only capable of identifying sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, or savory, flavors. But if that’s the case, where do all the other nuances of flavor come from?
The truth is, there are a multitude of factors that impact the complete impression of flavor when you taste a certain food or beverage. The most essential and influential of these is aroma, but there are also trigeminal effects, texture and mouthfeel, interactions between foods and drinks, and even visual suggestions such as color.
Aroma’s Obvious Role
Smell is by far the most influential sense in flavor perception and gives us the ability to discern highly specified flavors thanks to the much broader range of scent receptors we have in our noses compared to just the five tastes we can perceive with our tongues.
You can experience the difference between the pure lingual taste of something and its full flavor with all of the nuances that the aroma chemicals add by plugging your nose before you eat something, preferably something you couldn’t already smell before plugging your nose like a jelly bean. When you first taste the candy with your nose plugged, the only thing you’ll taste is the sugar, but once you open your nostrils, you should be able to immediately determine the exact flavor of the jelly bean.
Because of the strength of the influence aroma has on flavor, many flavor components that are added to a formulation are in fact aroma compounds. Despite this technical distinction, aroma compounds included in the additional flavor ingredients of a formulation are still just considered flavor ingredients and will be an integral part of the formulation that a flavor house will be able to develop for you.
The rush of cool that comes with mint or the intense burning sensation from a ghost pepper may seem like aspects of flavor, but they are actually pain responses traveling along the trigeminal nerve that winds its way from your teeth and tongue up to your nose, eyes, ears, and even into the forehead and cranium.
The trigeminal nerve transports pain and temperature information, both hot and cold, and heat spice and minty cooling, from your face to your brain, but the interconnectedness of the nerve results in some interesting side effects to extremes. It’s the reason why a brain freeze can go all the way up to the top of your head.
While this sensation is not technically flavor, there isn’t much separation between the perception of these effects and the actual taste of the item since they are so powerful they can often overpower the underlying flavors and aromas, especially with high levels of capsaicin. Subtler effects often complement and enhance a taste and are so ingrained in our common perception of that flavor that it becomes an expected and indistinguishable component of taste, as is the case with mint.
In a formulation, ingredients that are known to trigger trigeminal effects should be used with great care to ensure that the effects never become so overpowering that all the effort of flavor creation is lost. These kinds of ingredients should be carefully crafted to enhance the flavor of your product, not distract from it.
Mouthfeel is the technical term for the perception of texture as an aspect of the overall flavor experience. While this is about as far from actual flavor perception in the mouth as we can get, it is still a sensation on the tongue and so it becomes a factor in taste perception.
There is much debate over which is the more important factor, flavor or texture, when it comes to developing a successful CPG product, but the reality is, they’re both important. While some people can overlook a subpar texture for an excellent flavor, there are others who absolutely cannot including a growing number of people coming to terms with their sensory issues that would potentially avoid or become loyal to a product based on the texture alone.
While much of your product's texture will be decided by the base formulation, there are ingredients that can be added and techniques that can be used to protect, enhance, or alter the texture of your product. One of the biggest factors for texture is the presence, or more often the absence, of moisture. There probably aren’t a lot of people that want to eat soggy crackers.
This need to balance moisture is why it is important to know whether your flavor will be mixed in a liquid product or needs to be applied dry as a powder. Your flavor house consultant will be able to help you make that decision to best fit your product.
Like all sensations, the actual perception of flavor happens in the brain. This means that the way you experience a flavor can be impacted by competing stimuli. Since 80% of our sensory impressions come from visual stimuli, the appearance of food can drastically impact our overall perception of the flavor.
One of the most clearcut examples of this visual stimulus hijacking is the strong association between color and flavor. We all have preconceived notions of what flavors are associated with a certain color of candy or soda. For instance, if you picked up a red Jolly Rancher you could safely assume that the flavor is some kind of red fruit like watermelon or cherry. It would be pretty jarring if a bright red candy turned out to be peanut butter flavored.
There have even been culinary adventures into the removal of the visual aspect altogether by serving food to patrons who are blindfolded or seated in a pitch-black room. A unique experience to be sure, but maybe not so practical for everyday dining.
Just as much as color can confuse and detract from the overall flavor experience, so too can you use this neurological connectivity to your advantage. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that a brighter-colored orange juice resulted in a marked difference in the perceived level of sweetness and quality of overall flavor despite the only difference being the color.
The ideal color for your product will depend on a number of factors including the color of the formulation before adding coloring ingredients and the most effective associated color for the flavor of your product as well as aligning with your customer and their values.
The benefits or downfalls of flavor pairing are something that most of us have experienced in our lives without trying. The classic example is the dreaded glass of orange juice after brushing your teeth. With the intense minty sweetness of your toothpaste still lingering in your mouth, the natural sweetness of the orange juice is completely overshadowed resulting in a heavy dose of sour citrusy bitterness.
While this experience is somewhat intense, there are much subtler interactions that occur when you eat and drink almost anything. This is why wine pairings are so important: the wrong wine with the wrong dish could completely ruin the intended experience of both.
You likely won’t be able to control what kinds of foods or beverages your customer will pair your product with, but you can make suggestions with clever marketing and customer engagement. Recipes and suggested wine pairings on product packaging can be a good way to ensure that your product is experienced the way it was intended.
Trust Every Aspect of Your Next Flavor Profile to the Professionals at Renaissance
With so many overlapping influences affecting the accumulated flavor perception, it is essential to get the taste of your product just right, that’s where the professionals at Renaissance Flavors come in. Trust your flavor formulation to our top-notch team of flavorists to walk you through every stage of the process and create the perfect flavor solution for your new product.