To answer these questions, we need to understand exactly what taste is and the different factors that affect our perception of it. Although taste can literally be defined as “a perception of a combination of chemical signals on the tongue” that enables us to define whether a product is sweet, salty, bitter, sour or umami, the term encompasses so much more than this chemical reaction. In its broader sense, taste—or our overall gustatory system—provides a multi-sensory human experience that is extremely powerful and complex.
When something tastes good, we associate a feeling of pleasure with that product. What we are interested in here is why it tastes good. This is often due to a successful combination of elements that are closely linked to our senses. In this article, we’re going to review each of these key elements in a little more detail: visual aspect, olfaction, taste and texture.
The terms “aroma”, “taste” and “flavour” are often discussed in close relation to each other. However, there are some important distinctions to be made. Aromas are experienced only through the nose, e.g. when we smell coffee. Taste (in its physical sense, sometimes referred to as “taste sensation”) is experienced only through the tastebuds on the tongue and relates to our perception of sweet, salty, bitter and sour flavours. The combination of aromas and taste (with signals from both
the nose and the mouth) creates what we know as flavour.
Although sight is considered as a sense that is separate to taste, numerous studies have shown that our visual perception of a product can affect how it tastes.
One classic experiment involved colouring a white wine with an odourless dye to make it look like red wine. When researchers asked a panel of wine connoisseurs to describe its taste, the experts talked about the wine using descriptors that are typical of red wine rather than white, suggesting that the colour significantly affected their perception of the drink.
A similar story went viral in 2018, when a scientist explained that Skittles all have the same taste. Colours and aromas are cheaper and easier to alter than taste sensations, so some manufacturers of products like Skittles give one sweet a yellow colour and a lemon aroma and another one an orange colour and aroma, despite the fact that the taste sensation itself has not changed. Our brains associate the colour yellow, a lemon smell and a slightly acidic taste with each other. When we are offered two of these three sensory cues, our brains fill in the blanks and decide that the sweet tastes like lemon.
Studies have also shown that more intense colouring results in the perception of more intense flavour, and that brightly coloured foods frequently seem to taste better than bland-looking foods, even when the flavour compounds are identical. This may be because thousands of years ago, humans determined whether food was safe to eat primarily by what it looked like; ripe fruit that was safe to eat tended to be brighter, whereas unripe, “dangerous” fruit was usually darker in colour.
1. Take great care with product presentation
Consumers will see your product before they eat (or buy) it, so make sure it is presented nicely and looks like a well-made, tasty product. One study showed that consumers were willing to pay more for a salad that was “artistically arranged” compared to an alternative version with the same ingredients that had been thrown together. Products that are bright, shiny and vibrant are generally much more appealing than dull, pale ones.
2. Make sure that the visual aspect corresponds to the consumer’s expectation of the category
Imagine a strawberry milkshake that is blue or yellow. It will confuse consumer’s perceptions and make them less likely to trust the product. This is true for all visual aspects like colour, size, shape or any other visual characteristic associated to a product category. For example, the bubbles of a carbonated drink should be clearly visible so that it is in line with consumer expectations for this type of product.
3. Avoid artificial colours
As consumers increasingly become more conscious about what they are eating, there is a growing demand for “clean labelling,” which is when a product is made using natural ingredients and colouring that consumers are familiar with instead of artificial or synthetic ones. This creates a new challenge for manufacturers as they try to develop appealing products that look bright and shiny, without using artificial colouring.
Aroma is one of the biggest determining factors in how we perceive overall taste, with some saying that it is responsible for up to 80% of our taste perception. The importance of the nose in our ability to distinguish flavour can be demonstrated by chewing a jelly bean whilst pinching your nose. Your tastebuds will distinguish a sweet taste, but you won’t be able to perceive the particular strawberry flavour of the jelly bean until you take your hand away from your nose.
This is due to a process called retronasal olfaction. When we chew, swallow and exhale, volatile molecules from the food are forced up behind our palate and into our nasal cavity from the back, like smoke going up a chimney. Those molecules bind with odour receptors in our nasal cavity, which are the main source of what we perceive as flavour.
Interestingly, research has shown that receptors in the nose are not scattered at random as previously thought, but are in fact organised into tiny hot spots that help the brain to decide whether a smell is good or bad. The findings imply that the pleasantness of a smell is hardwired within our brains, suggesting that some smells are intrinsically pleasant and others unpleasant, and that these preferences are universal.
1. Take olfaction seriously
Since aroma is one of the most important elements when it comes to determining how we perceive overall taste, it is essential to make sure that your product has an appealing “nose.” There are a number of different aroma families, such as fruity, floral, woody, earthy, etc. Think carefully about the aromatic profile of your product and its influence on overall taste, and try to create a product with well-balanced aromas that complement each other perfectly. For example, a wine with a fruity, sweet aroma should be balanced out by fresher notes to stop it being too cloying.
2. Avoid defects & artificial aromas
Take care to avoid any defective aromas that can occur in the production process; this is common with carbonated beverages and spirits and can result in rancid or off-putting aromas that have a negative impact on the overall gustatory impact.
As with artificial colouring, consumers are increasingly avoiding products with artificial aromas. Consumers are much more likely to trust a product with a natural, “clean” aroma rather than one that smells synthetic.
3. Make sure that the smell of your product matches & reinforces its taste
With such a close relationship between aroma and flavour, it’s important to make sure that how your product smells corresponds to how it tastes. A yogurt might have a pleasant strawberry flavour, but it might be perceived as lacking in intensity without the appropriate aromas to go with it.
4. Use odours to increase appetite
Research has also found that certain odours have the potential to arouse and increase appetite. A good example is the specific aroma of the Maillard reaction, which occurs when roasting meat, coffee beans or almonds, and the baking of bread and cakes.
As mentioned earlier, taste in its simplest definition is “a perception of chemical signals on the tongue” that enables us to recognise five basic taste sensations: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami.
The umami taste is of particular interest, since it is a relatively new concept for Western countries that we have only begun to acknowledge in the past decade. It was first discovered in 1908 by Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, as he tried to determine what it was exactly that made his wife’s soup taste so good. He discovered that it was the savoury flavour crated by glutamate, an amino acid released through slow cooking and fermentation. Products with a pronounced umami taste include Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, soy sauce and ketchup, which all have a pleasant savoury flavour that coats the tongue and lingers in the mouth for a long time.
The sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami signals are received by the tastebuds, which are located on the front and back of the tongue as well as on the sides, back and roof of the mouth. It was previously thought that the tongue was divided into different sections, with particular areas that could recognise the different tastes. This popular theory was actually based on a misinterpretation, and in reality the receptors that distribute these tastes are scattered all over the tongue.
Regardless of where the specific receptors are, the fact is that consumers prefer products that taste salty, sweet and fatty.
The reasons for these preferences are thought to be evolutionary. As Lisa Cimperman, dietitian at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, says: “Humans are evolutionarily wired to prefer fatty, sweet and salt tastes because they are a very efficient source of energy, and our bodies are wired for survival.” From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense; the feel-good chemicals released by these kinds of food encouraged our ancestors to eat more of them, giving
them a better chance of survival.
“Despite consumers’ growing healthy intentions, they are also looking for something that is going to taste delightful”.
- Jason Cohen, founder of Analytical Flavor System
Humans are predisposed to favour sweet, salty and fatty products. These same products can often have negative health implications if eaten in excess. According to a 2019 research from the Food Information Council, “Taste” remains the primary purchase critera (86%), well ahead of healthiness (62%).
So how do you create a healthier product without compromising on taste?
For certain products (usually drinks) aftertaste can be an important factor in determining their overall taste quality. It can be defined as the taste intensity of a product that is perceived immediately after it leaves the mouth (usually after it is swallowed).
Aftertaste is measured according to quality, intensity and duration; the first two factors are concerned with the actual taste of the product and the magnitude of this taste, and the third refers to how long the aftertaste lasts.
1. Create well-balanced taste sensations
Research has shown that products scoring highly on overall taste perception have taste sensations that are well balanced—never too sweet, salty, acidic or bitter. An excess of any of these basic tastes in a product can be detrimental to its success, and there is a certain optimum that makes dosage crucial in flavour composition. The correct balance of flavours depends on the type of food and the consumer’s expectations of it; for example, the right amount of acidity added to a sweettasting orange juice will create a refreshing flavour that isn’t too sickly or cloying.
2. Use high-quality natural ingredients
Following consumers’ growing health concerns, manufacturers have been developing “light,” “low fat,” “low sugar” product ranges, often using non-natural alternative ingredients (e.g. artificial sweeteners). Although these products were popular in the past, consumers are beginning to realise that these “alternative” ingredients are often unhealthier than the sugar and fats they replace.
Today’s consumer increasingly opts for products with simple, natural ingredient lists that are not overly processed, in a move towards as “clean labelling.” By using better quality ingredients like salt, fats and sugars that are less refined and more natural, manufacturers are able to offer higher quality products with the same great taste. Developing smaller portions is also an effective way to help consumers to enjoy tasty, natural products in moderation.
3. Make sure that flavours correspond to the consumer’s expectation of the category
Aim for well-balanced flavours that reflect consumer expectations for the type of product. Studies show that if the flavour and sensory expectations are not confirmed, the likelihood of product success is poor because the signals are confusing. For example, if we expect a fruit smoothie to taste sweet but instead it tastes bitter, this creates a lack of trust in the product and we are unlikely to enjoy it.
4. Don’t forget the aftertaste
Aftertaste is more important for some products than others; for example, it is often a key factor for assessing alcoholic drinks. In general, successful products have an aftertaste that is wellbalanced and harmonious with the tasting experience as a whole. An aftertaste should not be excessively bitter, sickly sweet or overpoweringly alcoholic. Aim to leave a positive, enjoyable impression on the consumer that encourages them to take another sip.
In addition to the taste-sensation cells in our mouth, there are also sensory cells that enable us to perceive how a product feels, e.g. whether it is soft and creamy or hard and dry. This is why the texture of food is sometimes also referred to as “mouthfeel.”
The texture of food products is becoming increasingly important to consumers. A 2019 survey by Taste Tomorrow found that 66% of consumers like to try food with different textures and concluded that they want to be “wowed by all their senses” when trying a new product. In short, texture can create an enhanced eating experience that will make your product even more appealing.
1. Create the right texture for your product
Appropriate texture is dependent on the type of product; if you are developing a new variety of potato chips, for example, they should be crisp and crunchy because this denotes freshness. Whipped cream should be light and smooth rather than heavy and lumpy.
2. Avoid extremes
Product should be easy to eat with a pleasant mouthfeel, without being excessively hard and brittle or soft and cloying in the mouth.
3. Aim for multi-texture contrast
Products with a combination of both hard and soft textures often score high on overall gustatory perception. A Dutch study asking Michelin-starred chefs about their most popular dishes and what makes them so tasty concluded that contrast in mouthfeel, with a combination of “crispy” or “crunchy” on the one hand and “juicy” or “creamy” on the other, was a key element.
4. Use fat for a rich mouthfeel
Fat is an important element that can be used to create a pleasant, rich mouthfeel. When used in the right dosage it can enhance all of the other flavours that are present, and recent research suggests that it may soon be considered a taste in its own right.
The effect of sound on taste perception is an exciting new perspective that is currently being researched. This is particularly interesting as the process of developing a food product or a dish is often seen as a creative endeavour, with chefs experimenting with taste likened to composers trying to find a harmonious balance of sounds.
In one study, participant were asked to rate the crispness and freshness of potato chips whilst listening to headphones that varied the loudness or pitch of the crunching noise. Despite the fact that all of the samples were the same, participants rated the chips associated with the louder, higher-pitched crunch as 15% crispier and fresher, suggesting that sound can also alter taste perception.
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