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Scientists Explain How People "See" Flavors in Food

Update Date: Apr 12, 2013 06:47 AM EDT

Sight can sometimes overpower taste and smell in determining the taste and allure of food, scientists claim.

Researchers speaking at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans described how people can sometimes "see" flavors in foods and beverages before actually tasting them.

"There have been important new insights into how people perceive food flavors," Dr. Terry E. Acree said in a statement.

"Years ago, taste was a table with two legs - taste and odor," he said.

"Now we are beginning to understand that flavor depends on parts of the brain that involve taste, odor, touch and vision. The sum total of these signals, plus our emotions and past experiences, result in perception of flavors, and determine whether we like or dislike specific foods," he explained.

Acree says that the eyes can sometimes trump the tongue, nose and brain in the emotional and biochemical balloting that determines the taste and appeal of food. Sauvignon Blanc white wine, for instance, gets its flavor from scores of ingredients including chemicals with the flavor of banana, passion fruit, bell pepper and boxwood. However, when researchers tint a glass of Sauvignon Blanc red to match the deep red of merlot or cabernet, people 'taste' the natural chemicals that give rise to the flavors of those red wines.

In another experiment, participants asked to smell certain foods before taking a sip of water.  When they smelled caramel, strawberry or other sweet foods, the plain water they drank afterwards tasted sweet.  However, when they smell bread, meat, dish or other non-sweet foods, the water did not taste sweet.

Researchers noted that while the appearance of foods is important, other factors could also override it.  For instance, curries, chilies, stews, and cooked sausages aren't visually appealing and can look like vomit or feces.  However, people crave these dishes based on the memory of eating and enjoying them in the past.  Acree added that the human desire for novelty is another factor in the human tendency to ignore what the eyes "taste".  

Researchers said the findings might open the door to the development of healthy foods that look and smell more appealing to picky eaters. 

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