Fun With Taste and Flavor

The next time you find yourself face to face with a bag of jellybeans, skittles, or other fruit flavored, chewy candies, try this little exercise; it's really enlightening. In fact, it's so much fun that I suggest you go out right now and buy a bag of candy to try it A.S.A.P.! As a chef instructor at culinary school, I do this with each new group of students during their first week of classes to get them thinking about how our perception of taste and flavor really work.

Hold one, and only one, piece of candy in your fingers. With the fingers of your other hand, tightly pinch your nostrils closed so that you cannot in any way breath through your nose. Pop the piece of candy into your mouth and chew it thoroughly for 10-15 seconds while continuing to hold your nose closed. Don't breath in or out through your mouth, either. What you will be perceiving during this time is one of the five widely accepted basic tastes; sweetness. The other four are salty, sour, bitter, and umami (Japanese for deliciousness or savoriness).

Once you have fully registered the sweetness of the candy, unplug your nose and breath in and out deeply. WHAM! All of a sudden it hits you...the specific flavor of the individual piece of candy you chose. While you were holding your nose, you were preventing the volatile aroma molecules that were escaping from the chewed candy to come into contact with your olfactory receptor cells. While your receptors in your taste buds in your mouth were able to pick up and transmit the perception of sweetness to your brain, it wasn't until you allowed the aroma vapors up inside you nasal passages that the complete "flavor" of the candy revealed itself.

So, what it comes down to is that the experience of a food's "flavor" as we perceive it is really a composite of one (or more) of its basic tastes, put together with all of the aroma molecules released from that food as you chew it. To put it into a very simple formula, TASTE + AROMA (smell) = FLAVOR. Try the jellybean exercise on a group of people sometime, maybe at your next dinner party. It's always a crowd pleaser.