Anyone who has ever watched an episode of Top Chef has heard Padma or Tom send a contestant home after an early challenge for preparing an ugly dish with the reminder that we eat with our eyes first. After our eyes? Well it might surprise you to know that honor belongs to your nose. And Is our mouth even third? That answer is more complicated than you might think.
We take for granted taste as an independent sense, when in fact it is actually largely the product of scent, sight and feel, twisted and combined into a new sensation of its own.
Roughly 80% of what we interpret as flavor is actually just scent, according to the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. A meaty portion of the remaining 20% is then sight translated within your brain. And a lesser portion still is derived from how a morsel of food feels in your mouth as you bite into it, or upon your fingertips as you lift it.
Brandeis University neuropsychologist Dan Katz illustrates the murkiness of taste by explaining an experiment. Adding the wrong food coloring to otherwise clear fruit sodas – say orange to grape, purple to lemon, yellow to apple – makes their taste indecipherable to tasters. Katz told NPR, "While I wouldn't say they went to chance, their ability to tell which was which got really subpar all of the sudden. The orange beverage tasted orange [to them]. The yellow beverage tasted like lemonade. There wasn't a thing they could do about it."
Interesting stuff in its own right, but consider this mind-blowing fact that will have you questioning your entire childhood: All Skittles taste exactly the same.
Katz says the candy manufacturer learned early on that it was more cost effective to produce five varieties that all tasted the same, and simply tweaked the colors and fragrances added to the candy coatings. By looking and smelling differently, Skittles successfully allows your brain to just wing the rest. The result is the same – five fruit tastes.
Knowledge about the complicated relationship between the senses is hardly limited to food scientists in white lab coats. Chefs the world over strum the strings connecting them all the time. Consider the case of the tiny clear pumpkin pie that became an internet phenomenon last September. Alinea chef de cuisine Simon Davies relied on the sense of smell to process the taste of the Thanksgiving classic, even as he manipulated diners’ senses of sight and touch.
"We put the pumpkin pie stock under a vacuum,” Davies told Vogue, “and that stock boils at room temperature. Because it’s boiling, it’s evaporating, and that evaporation hits the rotary evaporator’s chilled coils and drips into a collection flask. We take that collection flask and we season it with a little bit of salt and sugar, and then set it with gelatin. So, it’s basically pure aroma.”
A dollop of whipped cream and the familiar wedge shape paired with a pure aroma gelatin slice of pie are the only sensory signals it takes for the human mind to fully recreate the taste of pumpkin pie as it hits taste buds.
Food scientist Terry E. Acree says coloring is the only thing truly differentiating between a glass of red and white wine. When given a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, we taste minerals, passion fruit, or even bell pepper. “But if a flavorless food coloring is added to the Sauvignon Blanc to turn it a deep red, people’s taste perceptions change,” according to Acree. They taste flavors associated with merlots or cabernets, wines known for their deep red colors.
Even the human sense of hearing can contribute to the taste of a dish. Yes, the emerging field of “sonic seasoning” is a thing. Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence won a 2008 Ig Nobel Prize for their research that proved that the sound of food contributed to how its taste was perceived. Further study has illuminated how tinkling, high pitched sounds make food taste sweeter, while deep, brassy music tricks the brain into tasting bitterness.
But is it a trick at all? Or just how our brains are wired to work. With even more expansive taste research showing that bright lights influence people to order spicier foods in restaurants, and exposure to red lighting while drinking makes wine taste fruitier, it’s safe to say that we’ve barely begun to fully understand our sense of taste – if humans even actually possess an independent sense of taste at all.