Imagine taking a taste from a bowl filled with something red, sweet, and delicious. If you were asked to specify the flavor of the concoction, you would likely say either strawberry or raspberry. But if the bowl’s content changes color from red to blue, but maintains the exact same flavor, your pronouncement about the taste would likely change to blueberry.
Taste turns out to be far more than the sum of the herbs, spices, chemicals, and basic raw materials that produce that ineffable sensation we all know. Understanding both the psychological and physiological contexts of taste is crucial for companies like the Plainsboro Road-based Firmenich (www.firmenich.com), the largest privately owned company in the perfume and flavor business. “How we design flavors and fragrances is more than just the actual biological mechanisms of your nose or your tongue,” says Anthony Clark, vice president of corporate research and development. “It’s all about the cognitive processes in your brain — how we can convince someone to like your product.”
Clark will speak on “Taste Science: Why No One Makes White Chocolate Pudding” on Thursday, July 10, at 11:30 a.m. at the Marriott Princeton Hotel and Conference Center for the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. Cost: $45. To register, go to www.princetonchamber.org.
“When we taste something, the brain receives stimuli from a number of places,” says Clark, “not just the tongue and nose.” Firmenich must consider a number of dimensions as it develops its products:
Visual context. The strawberry versus blueberry example shows that we use our eyes to make taste assumptions, based on color. The visual aspect of taste also comes into play with the answer to the question that titles Clark’s upcoming talk: “Why does no one make white chocolate pudding?” The answer is simple: “Nobody makes it because then it just tastes like vanilla,” says Clark.
Cultural background. The brain is also influenced by people’s environment, making taste culture specific. Take something as apparently straightforward as the strawberry taste used to make a strawberry yogurt. When people in different countries and on different continents talk about “strawberry,” however, they mean something different.
“This is based not on the strawberry itself — strawberries are the same all over the world,” observes Clark. “It is based on people’s environmental background, what people have grown up with and been educated into thinking is strawberry flavor.” In North America, for example, the strawberry flavor is much sweeter; in Germany, a little more green, or apple-like; and in France, a little more fruity.
Sometimes the taste fancies of one culture provoke extreme distaste in others. Durian fruit, which smells to westerners like rotting fruit, is a beloved edible in Singapore and parts of Asia. The fruit has been banned from some public transport in Asia, says Clark, because it has such a strong smell. Another culture-specific taste is umani, a savory smell that is beloved by the Japanese, who love umani-tasting snacks that westerners can’t put in their mouths. Once Firmenich understands consumer taste preferences like these, it uses flavor to create formulations that mirror these preferences.
Temporal factors. One aspect of taste as well as its cousin, fragrance, is how long it persists. Consider chewing gum. Its problem is that once you chew it for awhile, it loses its flavor. If you’re looking for something like the everlasting gobstopper of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” says Clark, you have to understand why that gum taste phases out. In reality, he explains, the actual flavor of the gum remains. What is lost is the sweetness. So to maintain the flavor you would need to to boost the sweetness after a period of gum chewing.
Similarly with a fragrance, whether it is on your clean laundry, your hair, or your skin, Firmenich must be able to deliver a fragrance or a flavor at the right time. We know that if a fragrance is evaporating steadily from a substance, we become habituated to it, which comes in handy for smells that are unpleasant. But producers of, say, air fresheners, would prefer that customers consistently perceive the smell, and there is a potential solution. “If we can stop it from emitting all the time, then start again we perceive it much more strongly,” says Clark. Air fresheners on the market have taken this idea and tried using two or even three fragrances pumped sequentially to avoid habituation.
Age differences. The perception of flavor changes as we get older. As a result, demographic studies must be taken account when developing tastes for particular products.
Mouth feel. The mouth and teeth provide additional input to taste perception beyond what the taste buds and nose contribute. Consider the brittle, crunchy, crisp effect of food, like the difference between a fresh celery stick and one that has been in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Same taste, but a different feel, and this distinction hugely affects your appreciation of the food.
The feel in our mouths also provides the sensation of creaminess, the elusive characteristic that product designers are trying to put back into low-fat yogurts. “When you put it in your mouth, it doesn’t have that rich creamy feeling,” says Clark, but the mouth likes the feel of cream that is missing when the bulking agents in whole milk are absent. So what is Firmenich’s task? “We try to formulate the feel of rich, creamy yogurt without the calories,” says Clark.
Smell versus taste. Physiologically smell and taste are produced differently. With smell, the volatile chemicals in the substance flow in through the nostrils, whereas with taste, they go through the mouth to the back of the soft palate, which pumps air into the nose as a person chews.
The nose senses the same smell in both cases, but the brain also registers the difference in the direction of air flow, thereby differentiating smell and taste. As a result, sniffing from a glass of red wine, even sipping it and putting it in the front of the mouth as a wine taster would, produces a different experience than actually swallowing it. “Both give true representations of what they are,” says Clark. “One is smell; the other is taste.”
In the case of wine, both smell and taste are pleasant, but that’s not true of everything. Most people who smell a rose, for example, enjoy the fragrance, but if they taste a rose petal, most don’t like it. Of course that’s cultural too, because in Turkey many people like the taste of roses.
Clark, who has been with Firmenich for eight years, received a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Dundee, in Scotland, in 1988 and a doctorate in molecular biology from the University of Leeds. His father was a telecommunications manager.
During his five years with the Carlsburg brewing company, his mornings involved taste testing of new beers — without swallowing of course. That piqued his interest, he says. “From that point on I have been really interested in how we taste.”