Love chocolate? Don't thank your tastebuds - thank your brain


First aired on Think About It (1/7/2013)

The next time you take a bite of something delicious, pause. Close your eyes. Savour the flavour. And thank your brain.

That's right, your brain.Because when it comes to the flavour of food, it's not your tastebuds doing the work. It's your brain, and the process is the subject of a new area of research called neurogastronomy.


Gordon Shepherd is a neuroscientist and the author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters. He became fascinated with flavour when, after years of enjoying his wife's gourmet cooking, "I began to realize that much of my enjoyment came from my sense of smell. That was responsible for most of the wonderful flavours in the food," he told Think About It host Roberta Walker. So he decided to figure out what was going on -- and the results surprised him.

He was right: smell is a major contributor to determining how a food tastes. But the surprising result was that taste didn't come from breathing in an aroma -- it comes from breathing out. "[When] we chew our food, the volatile molecules that are released from the food that we have in our mouth are carried by the air we are breathing out, up from the back of the mouth into the nasal cavity and stimulate the sense of smell that way," Shepherd explained. This is called "retronasal smell" and it indicates that smell is much more important for human life than originally thought.

Smell is often considered a "second-rate" human sense, far inferior to the sense of smell in other species, such as dogs. "It's very nice, but compared to vision or compared to hearing none of us would want to give those up in favour of retaining their sense of smell." But it turns out, we've been taking smell for granted all this time -- and this new association with taste opens up avenues for exciting new insights into the importance of smell. "It accounts for so much of the flavour that we experience when we are eating food," Shepherd said. "Now it becomes a major player in our daily lives, and probably was a major player in how humans evolved."

The fact that we take this smell and associate it with taste is simple: our brain tricks us. "When we take food into our mouths, all our conscious perception is focused on the food in the mouth," Shepherd pointed out. We focus on its size, its texture and the sound it makes when we chew. We only think about the smell of the food before we eat it -- not during. "Even the sight of the food before we took it into our mouths conditions the perceptions we have of the flavour," Shepherd said. "All of these senses are rolled into this one word that usually we call taste."

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