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Researchers Explore The Mechanism That Helps Us Identify Food Odors

Update Date: Jun 27, 2014 10:26 AM EDT

Foodstuffs contain more than 10,000 different volatile substances but only around 230 of these help us determine the odor of the food we eat, a new study has reported. Narrowing it down further, the study said between 3 and 40 of these key odors are responsible for encoding the typical smell of an individual foodstuff. 

Researchers surprisingly noted that almost unlimited variety of food smells is based on 230 key odorants. Further they found that each foodstuff has its own color code that is comprised of a core group of between just 2 and 40 of the 230 key odorants in specific concentration. 

"So for example, the smell of cultured butter is encoded by a combination of just 3 key molecules, but fresh strawberries have 12," explained Prof. Peter Schieberle from the TUM Chair of Food Chemistry, in the press release.

When the food is consumed, the chemical odor codes are translated into olfactory stimulus patterns. 

"A combination of between just few key odorants creates an authentic perception of odors. This is all the more surprising given that the olfactory quality of the combinations is not determined by the individual components," added Prof. Thomas Hofmann from the TUM Chair of Food Chemistry and Molecular Sensory Science.

When people perceive external chemical odor patterns and process them in brain, the individual odor components instead adding up, are translated into a new odor identity. 

"In view of the chemical odor code combination possibilities and the 400 or so different olfactory receptors, it appears that there is a more or less unlimited number of discernible odor qualities," claimed Schieberle in the press release. 

Up until now, researchers have identified 42 receptors that respond to food odors - with the majority binding multiple odor molecules. 

"By mapping the odorous substances of the 230 currently known key odors, scientists can test which receptor combinations are 'reserved' for food odors," said Hofmann. "This will help us explain the biological relevance of odors in even greater detail."

The findings have been presented in chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie International.

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