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Partners in flavour
Our perception of food draws on a combination of taste, smell, feel, sight and sound.
BY NICHOLAS BAKALAR be detected in samples of amniotic fluid from When a baby begins to eat solid food, the most
women who have eaten garlic pills 45 minutes logical and safest things for it to eat are what its

he way we experience food is not limited before. And babies exposed to garlic in utero are mother ate. Indeed, he adds, this phenomenon
to the mouth odour, vision, hearing more apt to like the flavour of garlic in the milk suggests a strategy for improving the popula-
and even touch can radically change the of garlic-eating mothers. tions diet generally: Exposing infants prena-
taste of food or affect food preference. And it all To some extent, a mother can influence her tally and postnatally to the flavours of things
starts before birth. babys tastes by what she eats during pregnancy that people arent consuming enough of could
Amniotic fluid, the babys first food, contains and nursing. In one study, babies of mothers who be a good thing to do.
glucose, fructose, fatty acids and amino acids, ate more fruit during lactation were more likely
and newborns are born preferring the sweet to accept peaches than babies fed on formula A SENSORY MILIEU
taste of mothers milk to other flavours. Since the but the mothers consumption of string beans When taste signals are received, various neu-
1970s, researchers have known that the intro- did not have the same effect1. The taste for salt, ral pathways go into action: saliva production
duction of sweet solutions into the amniotic however, is apparently acquired only with age. increases and stomach secretions are activated.
fluid causes the fetus to swallow more frequently, Babies younger than four months are happy to But these pathways do not require food to be in
whereas bitter solutions reduce the rate of swal- drink either plain water or water with moderate the mouth. The sound of dishes rattling in the
lowing. Similar reactions are seen in babies: they concentrations of salt, but by the time they are kitchen or a picture of a lobster dinner can make
lick their lips and smile when tasting something two-and-a-half years old they show a marked the stomach rumble.
sweet, and wrinkle their noses and flail their preference for salty water. Vision provides an essential sensory input
arms in response to a bitter or sour taste, pre- Researchers have found evidence that preg- for food perception, raising expectations and
cisely the tastes that warn us to avoid poisons. nant women who consume certain foods so driving preferences. We
A taste for sugar is innate, says Julie Mennella, far they have tested anise, carrot, mint, vanilla unconsciously discrimi- NATURE.COM
a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses and blue cheese convey a liking for those nate between high-calo- The neuroscience
Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. tastes to their infants2. Theres a good species- rie and low-calorie foods of scent and
But even in the womb, new tastes can be intro- preserving rationale for this behaviour, says by sight alone. Kathrin sensibility:
duced. The odour of garlic, for example, can Gary Beauchamp, also at the Monell centre: Ohla, a psychologist at

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the Monell centre, demonstrated that seeing In the orbitofrontal cortex of the brain there is

pictures of high- and low-calorie foods provokes a group of neurons that respond specifically to
responses in different parts of the brain that vary the texture of fat in the mouth. These neurons
in intensity3. Without telling subjects the pur- respond not only to fatty oils in the mouth, such
pose of the test, Ohla showed them pictures of as vegetable oil, and to foods rich in fat, such as
high-calorie foods, such as lamb chops, salmon, ice-cream and chocolate, but also to non-food
pizza and pastry, alternating with pictures of substances that have a similarly oily texture,
lower calorie foods, such as beans, watermelon, including mineral oil or silicone oil. The taste of a
yogurt and pasta with tomato sauce. After each soda is also greatly influenced by feel, in a differ-
picture, she applied a weak electric current to ent way a flat soda tastes very different from
the subjects tongue, stimulating the brains taste one with carbon dioxide bubbles still rising in it.
function without mimicking any real taste, pro- Temperature is also a factor. Very cold ice-
ducing a sensation and metallic taste rather like cream has little flavour, for example, and warm-
licking a battery. So the subjects got the food cue ing it increases the perceived sweetness. The
from the picture and were immediately given a molecular processes in the taste buds of the
neutral taste stimulation. tongue that play a key role in the perception
The EEG measurements of brain activity were of sweet, bitter and umami tastes also regulate
clear: the electrical current administered after sensitivity to temperature5. Increasing the tem-
seeing a picture of a high-calorie food stimu- Tasty tones: tests have shown that when people perature of food to between 15 C and 35 C
lated a stronger and, according to the subjects, hear a crunch, a potato crisp seems fresher. enhances the neural response to sweetness. In
more pleasant sensation than the same electrical about 50% of the population, heating or cool-
stimulation applied after showing a picture of a When we hear and see something at the same ing the tongue is by itself enough to cause taste
low-calorie food. time, we are using two senses that have different sensations warming the tongue causes a sweet
The neural activity evoked by pictures of neural pathways, and we can easily distinguish sensation, and lowering the temperature induces
high-calorie food was stronger in specific parts between them. Not so with smell and taste. Dana a sour or salty taste.
of the brain the bilateral insula and frontal Small, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Yale Sound can also affect taste. In tests conducted
operculum than when low-calorie foods were University in New Haven, Connecticut, and the by two neuroscientists, Massimiliano Zampini
viewed. And changes in reported taste pleasant- Yale-affiliated John B. Pierce Laboratory, sug- of the University of Trento in Italy and Charles
ness were correlated with the activation of the gests trying what she calls the jelly bean test. Pop Spence of the University of Oxford, UK, subjects
medial orbitofrontal cortex. a jelly bean into your mouth while you hold your bit into potato crisps and rated their crispness
Even shape can affect taste. David Gal, who nose you can sense sweetness, but no flavour. or freshness. The scientists were able to system-
studies marketing and consumer behaviour at Then let go of your nose, and now you can iden- atically alter their subjects perceptions: playing
Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, tify the flavour as well. It seems obvious that the a crunching sound when the subjects bit down
found that after subjects completed an unre- flavour is coming from your nose, even though led to them judging that the crisps were fresher
lated task that involved sorting geometric fig- you can feel the jelly bean in your mouth. It is a and crisper than when there was no aural cue6.
ures, a piece of cheese with pointed, rather than very convincing illusion. In another study, researchers watched a random
rounded corners tasted sharper4. Scientists are Smelling through the nose and smelling sample of 15 couples as they drank in a bar on
only beginning to understand the brain mecha- through the back of the throat while tasting two consecutive Saturday nights, counting the
nisms underlying the connections between the may be neurologically distinct and Small has number of drinks they ordered until they left7.
visual and gustatory senses. found evidence that they are perceived quite dif- On the first night, with pop music set at a moder-
ferently. Both orthonasal and retronasal odours ate 75 decibels (dishwasher-level loudness), the
SNIFFING A CONNECTION arrive via the same pathway, but when they arrive men ordered an average of 2.9 drinks and the
Odour plays a large role, of course. Chewing at the same time as taste, then odour and taste are women 1.5. But on the second night, with the
releases volatile molecules that travel through integrated and the flavour perception created. It music pumped up to 91 decibels (a motorcycle),
the back of the mouth to receptors in the lin- is only when both taste and odour arrive in the the men averaged 4.3 drinks and the women 2.1.
ing of the nasal passages quite different from anterior insula that we perceive flavour. In other Taste preferences that start in the womb last a
taking a sniff through the nose. These receptors words, taste and smell have distinct pathways lifetime. When people move to another country,
allow us to identify the combination of sens- that overlap in the insula they absorb new habits, new language and new
ations that leads to flavour; that is, to know what Taste only happens when molecules bind to styles of clothing. They even accept new kinds of
were eating. When you eat a strawberry, it may receptors on the tongue, she says. From there, relationships between children and parents. But,
taste sweet or sour, and you can detect this even signals go to certain parts of the brain. Smell hap- says Beauchamp, one of the last things to change
while holding your nose. But what disappears is pens when odour molecules bind to receptors in in ethnic groups is food habits. Theyre the most
the flavour the strawberriness of the food. the nose, and from there signals go to different profound preferences and one reason is that
For that, you need a sense of smell. parts of the brain. They eventually meet up in theyre learned very early on.
Smell is much more complex than taste. the anterior insula. It is there, Small says, that we
Humans have only a few different taste recep- perceive flavour. When taste and smell co-occur, Nicholas Bakalar is a freelance journalist
tors: the five that scientists generally agree on the insula creates flavour. This merging of senses based in New York City.
(sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami) and pos- does not happen through simple sniffing of food
sibly a few others. But there are hundreds of thats not in the mouth. 1. Forestell, C. A. & Mennella, J. A. Pediatrics 120,
12471254 (2007).
receptors for odours. The possibilities for mix- 2. Lipchock, S. V. et al. Clin. Perinatol. 38, 627641
ing and matching taste and odour are immense, FEELING DELICIOUS (2011).
and lead to the wide variety of flavours we per- We also experience and differentiate foods 3. Ohla, K. et al. PLoS One 7, e32434 (2012).
ceive that subjectively bear little resemblance to through our physical contact with them. This 4. Gal, D. et al. SSRN eLibrary
abstract=1030197 (2007).
any of those basic tastes. is especially true of fats think of the creamy 5. Talavera, K. et al. Nature 438, 10221025 (2005).
Indeed, smell and taste are linked neurologi- mouth feel of butter and ice-cream, and the 6. Zampini, M. & Spence, C. Chem. Senses 3, 5767 (2010).
cally in a way that no other human senses are. oiliness and viscosity of a rich salad dressing. 7. Gueguen, N. et al. Percept. Mot. Skills 99, 3438 (2004).

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