How Scientists Solve Flavor’s Language Problem

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Credit: Dreamstime

How Scientists Solve Flavor’s Language Problem

DAVIS, Calif.
— Can youِ describe theِ flavor ofِ the lastِ thing youِ ate.
Chances are, it’sِ difficult toِ doِ so inِ much detail.

That’s because flavor suffers from a language problem.

In ourِ culture, andِ in mostِ cultures, weِ teach ourِ kids toِ discriminate sounds andِ colors, weِ work reallyِ hard atِ that, saidِ Hildegarde Heymann, a sensory scientist atِ the University ofِ California, Davis.
We veryِ rarely tellِ kids whatِ thingsِ taste andِ smell likeِ — weِ mayِ tell themِ itِ tastes good orِ tastes bad.
I mayِ tell youِ thisِ isِ really yummy, itِ tastes justِ like myِ grandma’s apple pie; but] myِ grandma mayِ haveِ used cinnamon andِ your grandma mayِ haveِ used cardamom andِ they areِ totally differentِ apple pies, butِ we don’t goِ into that.

What is it?

The flavor weِ perceive arises notِ only fromِ taste andِ aroma, butِ alsoِ the physical sensation food creates inِ your mouth.
Receptors onِ the taste buds ofِ your tongue pick upِ taste, whichِ comesِ in fiveِ distinct categories: sweet, salty, sour, bitter orِ umami (or savory).
(Although someِ argue thereِ areِ more.) An aroma, meanwhile, originates whenِ receptors inِ our nose pick upِ volatile chemicals — thoseِ thatِ evaporate easily — released byِ a substance intoِ the air.

Learning to speak flavor

Heymann andِ her team oftenِ work withِ wine, andِ to getِ aroundِ the language problem, theyِ frequently useِ a technique called Descriptive Analysis.
They assemble a panel ofِ atِ least eightِ people, a large enoughِ group toِ compensate forِ individual taste differences, andِ a panel leader guides themِ inِ creating theirِ ownِ vocabulary toِ describe theِ aromas inِ the wines orِ other samples theyِ areِ given.
After deciding uponِ theِ aromas theyِ detect inِ the wines, theِ panelists eachِ evaluate them.

Setting the standards

When I visited theِ lab inِ December, Hopfer presented meِ with severalِ such references inِ black wine glasses toِ prevent biases thatِ mightِ beِ prompted byِ the sight ofِ whatever isِ floating inِ them.
A peek insideِ revealed peas andِ slices ofِ green bell pepper floating inِ red wine.
(When possible, theِ references areِ presented inِ a bland wine becauseِ the wine itselfِ canِ affect theِ flavor.)  If youِ wouldِ beِ on myِ panel youِ wouldِ sayِ ‘I smell bell pepper,’ andِ I wouldِ give youِ threeِ orِ fourِ differentِ versions ofِ a bell pepper: a fresh bell pepper, a frozen bell pepper, a red bell pepper, andِ then youِ wouldِ sayِ ‘That oneِ isِ not theِ oneِ I amِ looking for, thatِ oneِ isِ pretty close,’ Hopfer explained.

A matter of taste

The panelists areِ often students fromِ the viticulture (grape-growing), enology (study ofِ wine) orِ food science departments atِ Davis.
The firstِ panel thatِ Arielle Johnson, a graduate student studying flavor chemistry, participated inِ explored theِ effects ofِ wine andِ chocolate onِ one another.
.

She found it intimidating at first.

I hadِ never doneِ one before, andِ I wasِ inِ a room withِ a lot ofِ people whoِ hadِ beenِ doing thisِ forِ a long time, Johnson said.
But itِ was reallyِ interesting, sort ofِ paying attention thatِ closely toِ allِ the thingsِ I couldِ smell inِ the wines andِ listening toِ allِ the thingsِ otherِ people hadِ to say, andِ then goingِ backِ andِ seeing ifِ I couldِ get theِ sameِ thing, While menus andِ liquor-store labels describe theirِ wares inِ floral, fruity-type terms, wines canِ alsoِ bring toِ mind diesel, rubber, a barnyard, andِ other lessِ conventional aromas.
In small amounts, theseِ canِ add complexity toِ a wine, inِ larger amounts, theyِ areِ often considered defects.

During the wine and chocolate panel, someone detected a particularly memorable aroma: Fecal.

The proponent ofِ fecal wasِ saying, ‘Well, actually, I kind ofِ likeِ a littleِ bit ofِ it,’ andِ everyone elseِ was saying, ‘You can’tِ call itِ fecal, itِ doesn’tِ smell fecal,’ saidِ Johnson, whoِ didِ not personally pick upِ onِ that aroma, whichِ wasِ eventually voted down, sheِ said: I thinkِ we put somethingِ dirt orِ strawlike..