What is a Flavor?
What is a Flavor?
The question may seem strange, surely we know what flavor is, we experience it every day. But what we perceive as flavor is, in reality, a very complex compilation of sensations that our brains sort through, combine, and catalogue in order to experience flavor.
When you eat or drink something, you will experience the physical sensations of texture, chemical sensations of taste and smell, and even specialized reactions, called trigeminal effects, that allow us to experience the heat of a habanero pepper or the cooling tingle of peppermint.
All of these sensations translate into the overall experience of taste and our perception of a drink or food item’s flavor.
Taste and Aroma
With all of the unique flavors and tastes we experience in our everyday lives, it’s easy to think that we are truly capable of tasting all of those nuances. However, our actual sense of taste is limited to only 5 distinct flavors: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.
The vast majority of individualized “flavor” actually comes from aroma chemicals. Our sense of smell is highly sensitive and well suited to distinguishing subtle differences in smells.
A fun way to experience how much of an impact smell has on taste is to plug your nose and eat a jelly bean. With your nose closed, you will only taste the sweetness of the jelly bean, but when you let go and breathe in through your nose, you should be able to accurately determine the flavor of the jelly bean.
Trigeminal Effects and Texture
Foods, or more specifically the chemicals in those foods, that produce a trigeminal effect are actually triggering our trigeminal nerve. This nerve is the main pain receptor for our face and runs from its base connection in our brains into three branches that connect our teeth, sinuses, nose, eyes, ears, and forehead.
The connectedness of the trigeminal nerve system is why you feel a brain freeze all the way up into your forehead and what makes your eyes water when you eat something super spicy.
The main heat spice chemical that triggers a trigeminal effect is capcasin. Common in chilli peppers, capsaicin isn’t a flavor at all but a chemical irritant and can cause irritation of any exposed cells, which is why it is the main ingredient in most defensive sprays like pepper spray and mace.
On the other end of the spectrum, cooling sensations are generally caused by the presence of menthol, as is the case with most types of mint. While the chemical itself gets something of a bad reputation due to its use in cigarette production, it is generally safe. In fact, menthol is an effective anti-inflammatory often included in aroma-based therapies for cough and congestion.
Like trigeminal effects, texture also plays a major part in the overall experience of flavor. However, unlike chemically-based flavor, aroma, and trigeminal effect, texture is a purely physical sensation.
When discussed as an aspect of a dish in culinary terms, texture is most often referred to as mouth feel. Despite being somewhat outside of the strict definition of flavor, texture shouldn’t be ignored when working on a formulation. An unwelcome grittiness or unpleasantly sticky sensation can make even the most perfectly flavored product inedible.
Natural and Synthetic Flavoring
The main factor that distinguishes a flavor ingredient from any other ingredient used to make a drinks or food products is that flavoring ingredients are not part of any other function of the recipe than to enhance the flavor. So while the type of milk you use in a cake might affect the flavor, it wouldn’t be considered a flavor ingredient, but a teaspoon of vanilla extract would.
Flavoring ingredients can be extracts, essential oils, oleoresins, distillates, hydrolysates, etc. Natural flavors come from foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, or spices, herbs, and other plants, but not always the ones you might think. Even synthetic flavors very often have a natural source, they just have undergone an extra level of human intervention to become the final flavor compound.
Despite what many believe, there are little to no chemical differences between the individual synthetic and natural flavor and aroma chemical compounds, they just come from different sources, and the purity of synthetic ingredients can even be safer in terms of avoiding allergens and impurities.
Whether the flavor ingredients used are natural or artificial shouldn’t affect the end flavor of the product, only the labeling on the ingredients list and the type of branding you can use for your product. Be sure to check the specific regulations in the country where your product will be sold to make sure that you are following the individual guidelines set out for what constitutes a natural flavor in each country.
Craft Your Next Flavor with Help from Renaissance
Are you ready to build your next food or beverage product? Trust the experts at Renaissance Flavors to help you craft the perfect flavor formulation to have your customers coming back for more.
Check out our extensive line of ready to chose flavor options or let us create a bespoke profile catered to your exact specifications and formulated just for you.