We think of taste as something universal that we have in common with all (or most) human beings, as a mechanical and chemical process that requires no thought. If we could measure the data that goes into our final judgment about the taste of a food, we’d likely be in for a shock. Perhaps surprisingly, our subconscious also plays a major role in what we like or dislike, and we use all our senses to determine this.
Traditionally, when we study the four elements of taste, they are presented as follows:
There is no need to explain these. We are all familiar with them.
Today, taste specialists have added a fifth to that list: umami. Taking its name from Japanese, umami is a pleasant savory taste occurring naturally in many foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products. It is subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round them out. Some researchers, such as Adam Hadhazi, think there are even more tastes to be added.
But in reality, taste or flavor involves all five senses. Yes: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
Some researchers, such as Gordon M. Shepherd, would have it that what we most often refer to as “taste” is in fact flavor, and that flavor is largely made up of what he calls “retrosmell”. It is true that in the past we were taught that primates lost touch with their sense of smell when they started holding their heads upright, far from the ground, and standing on two legs instead of four, but today, that is called into question. Shepherd is the one who challenged this long-held premise back in 1974.
Retronasal smell, also known as “retrosmell” or “mouth-smell”, is an addition to the conventional teaching about taste; it is an integral part of flavor. Retrosmell takes place while you’re chewing and swallowing, as well as while you’re breathing. When you exhale, you draw “chemicals released by the food into the nasal cavity, where they are sensed and transmitted to the brain,” says Medical Discovery News. It is what defines the aftertaste that stays in your mouth after sipping a good wine, for example.
I have lived much of my life through what I like to call “full-sensory taste.” Of course, I consider sour, sweet, bitter and salty, but the other senses also come into play. When I read a good restaurant menu, I focus on individual ingredients and can quite easily conjure up the final combination of flavors, i.e. taste, a dish will have. Just as when I shop, I first see the ingredient, then I might imagine how it sounds in my mouth (yes, I really do that). This is usually a function of whether it is crunchy, in which case it makes quite a lot of noise, or whether it is creamy, and spreads over the tongue and goes down smoothly (umami comes in here). I even like to touch certain ingredients, such as tomatoes, to see whether they are firm or mushy, or cereals, to make sure they’re still crisp.
On principle, I always smell vegetables and fruit before buying. Though today’s strict standards and expectations on the part of customers are largely visual, looks do not tell the entire story. A tomato might well be perfectly red, round and standard in size, but I know from experience that real tomatoes that you pick from the garden are not perfect to look at, and it is not this so-called “perfection” that determines the taste. As my best friend’s mother used to say, “Art is never perfect, and don’t forget that.” And thus is nature.
From my grandfather’s garden I bring in another element of taste: nostalgia. I will forever associate the chlorophyll-filled smells of the fresh vegetables and fruits from his garden with a sense of well being. I remember getting on my knees to smell the tomatoes before I picked them, like an animal with my nose close to the vines. After we’d finished harvesting for the day, with sweat on our brows, I’d sit on his lap under the shade of trees and drink ice water, his blue eyes sparkling in the sun as he laughed. I’d often hear my horse neighing in the field next door, see the horse barn in the distance. The stifling heat of the Kentucky sun would from time to time be broken up by a breeze that came suddenly out of nowhere, lasting only a few seconds, just enough to help evaporate our perspiration and bring with it a waft of horse sweat. When we finally carried our harvest into the house, my grandmother would start preparing dinner, changing those fresh scents of chlorophyll into seasoned scents of the traditional Kentucky dishes she mastered. The ensemble — all the sensory input and all the partly subconscious thoughts and feelings from these days gone by — is my definition of a perfect time and place and world, as simple as that may seem. It was a full-sensory experience, existing now in the form of subconscious associations that are totally my own, associations that form my likes and dislikes.
When I walk through the farmers market, I use all my senses and some nostalgia too. First I look, filtering out what experience tells me is not fresh or of good quality. I “create” dishes in my mind, “using” the ingredients that seem freshest and imagining the flavor of those ingredients together. It is a full-sensory experience. I imagine the crunchiness, unctuousness, aroma, the acidity, saltiness, bitterness, sweetness, umami. Associations from the past often rush in without me being conscious of them. It’s like a sentence from Proust. In one very long sentence, Proust takes you through all the senses and sometimes back again, and time is suspended, letting them all blend together to make an astonishing whole that is forever your own. This passage, quoted often, is just one example:
And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. . . . I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs.
Proust is, of course, referring to the conscious pleasure that comes through the senses, to which is inevitably added subconscious associations.
To sum it up, when you bite into a potato chip, you start by looking at it to see if it looks appetizing. When you put it in your mouth, you feel the crunch with your teeth (touch) and you hear it. You taste the salt; you taste and smell the flavoring, and it may well have a retrosmell, a taste/smell that lingers in the back of your mouth, even after you’ve swallowed it. All this gives you an idea, often formed from the past, of what it should be like in your mouth. If that “historical” expectation is not met, you probably won’t like the chip.
From this perspective, flavor in the traditional sense of the word takes on a whole new complexity. The traditional elements of flavor are combined with signals and messages from the other senses and with nostalgia and other subconscious associations. Our likes and dislikes become, like Proust’s description, a rich, unique blend of all these elements. There are indeed objective elements, but these cannot stand alone in producing the astonishing whole that is your own, which no one in the world has perceived exactly in the same way. Tasting becomes a moment suspended in time, a moment that is yours and yours only.
In this series of articles, we will explore these elements of full-sensory taste.
Retrosmell, by Pamela Bond
Taste: Surprising Stories and Science about Why Food Tastes Good, by Barb Stuckey
The Science of Taste and Flavor, Library of Congress
Oxford Journal: Chemical Senses, “Odour-evoked Autobiographical Memories: Psychological Investigations of Proustian Phenomena,” by Simon Chu and John J. Downes
“Yummy Umami: The 6th Basic Taste?,” by Diana Zahuranec