5. About The Five Senses
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
When we eat a piece of a chocolate chip cookie, what senses are involved in our mouth? We first look at the mouth-watering chocolate chip cookie, then we bite the cookie which creates a crisp crunchy sound. The aroma of the chocolate and vanilla, the slightly bittersweet taste of chocolate with cookie dough, the crunchy and soggy, chewy texture that really enhances the enjoyment of eating this ordinary cookie. This entire experience involves our five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch.
We also enjoy dining out: The light of the restaurant, the music in the background, the weight of the cutlery, and the company you are dining with. All of these elements create your very own multi-sensorial experience using all five senses.
Since this is a tasting book, I will focus more on the sensations that contribute most powerfully towards how we perceive flavour. These are smell, taste, and touch. There will be only a small section covering our senses of sight and hearing.
When people ask you how the coffee or wine “tastes”, this doesn’t mean the five basic tastes that I mentioned in the previous chapter. Instead, it means the entire gastronomic experience or perception of the flavour of the beverage, which includes three different senses: smell, taste, and touch. It might be a little confusing and overwhelming at first. Now, do not panic. In this chapter, I will give you a thorough idea of how these three main senses shape our opinion.
SENSE OF TASTE
The sense of taste is the perception of five “basic” tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. If you’ve ever felt the heat when having chili, it is a sensation of pain that is related to our sense of touch (perceived by our trigeminal nerve). Other examples of this relationship are the carbonation in fizzy drinks, the warmth of alcohol, or the pepperiness of wasabi.
Have you ever heard of the tongue map? It indicates that each taste appears in different areas on our tongue. For example, it says the bitter receptor is at the back of your tongue, the sour receptor is on the side and the tip of your tongue is the location of the salty receptor. However, it is actually invalid! And I can prove it to you.
Let’s do an experiment together:
Prepare some lemon juice, vinegar, or soy sauce.
Dip your finger or cotton swab in the liquid then swab it on the tip of your tongue.
Now swab the side of your tongue.
Swab the tip of your tongue.
You will find you are able to taste sourness on every part of your tongue. Each taste bud detects different intensities of those five tastes in these different areas on our tongues.
The way we recognize these tastes is through our taste buds or so-called palates. We have many taste buds spread across different areas of our tongues. Taste buds are a combination of 5 basic taste receptors. Each taste receptor receives the taste individually or as a combination, depending on the complexity of food. If you eat dark chocolate, your taste receptor will detect the tastes of sweet and bitter. If you drink red wine, your sweet, sour, and bitter taste buds will react together.
SENSE OF SMELL
A poll made by the Escapist magazine forum, asked: “If you had to lose one sense, what would it be?” The answers favoured abandoning the sense of smell because it seems less important than other senses. However, our sense of smell is actually really essential in our daily lives. It exists to protect us from dangerous situations.
Let’s do an experiment together:
Find a pack of skittles, gummy bears, chocolate, or Snickers...etc.
Pinch your nose before you put any of these sweets in your mouth.
Chew the sweet while holding your nose.
Identify which tastes you experience.
Remove your fingers and chew again.
Breathe in while you are chewing, then exhale.
Did you taste anything while you were pinching your nose? The answer is a definite Yes. There may have been some sweetness, acidity, or savouriness. Could you identify any flavours though? NO! Almost 90% of our flavour perception is smell according to Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Without our sense of smell, we can only perceive the 5 basic tastes. We all think that the sense of taste is the hero here, but actually our sense of smell is vital.
If you had no sense of smell, you might mistakenly drink a bottle of cleaning detergent in the dark and think that it was water (a real-life story!). You might not even notice there is a gas leak in the house. Studies also show that it can reduce your sex drive!
The experiment we just conducted suggested that smell is so much more important than taste. Without smell, we wouldn’t enjoy food or coffee nearly as much as we do now. Consuming flaky, yet chewy and soft, buttery, heart-melting croissants could taste like eating cardboard without the sense of smell.
The aromas of food and drink travel from both the front of our nose (orthonasal pathway) and back of our throat (retronasal pathway). Step 4 from the experiment above is emphasizing the existence of retronasal pathways.
When we smell, the odor molecules will be matched with different olfactory receptors. The receptors act like locks, only the right key (odor molecule) could open the door (pathway). The odor signals will be transmitted through the olfactory bulb to the olfactory cortex, where the information is processed.
The olfactory cortex is connected to the limbic system that deals with our emotions and memories. This is why when we smell something in the air that we are familiar with, it takes us directly to one of the experiences in the past.
The smell is the only sense that doesn’t go to thalamus directly. The thalamus is a hub that receives data from other sensory stimuli. Once the odor molecule has been translated through the olfactory cortex, the information will be sent to the thalamus to combine with other signals from other senses, and we can finally react to the overall tasting experience.
You might wonder, what if one lost the sense of smell? The co-founder of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, Ben Cohen, has anosmia, a disorder that means he cannot smell. He found joy in eating and creating rich textures. And his creations have become the most popular ice creams in the market.
If you see yourself working in a professional food and beverage industry, like myself in coffee, or if you were just simply interested in tasting coffee, wine, or anything else: In order to have a stronger connection with your tasting experience, I would highly recommend to smell the food or drink every time before you consume it. It will increase your sensory memory database held in the brain.
SENSE OF TOUCH
Our tongue is the second most sensitive part of our body, our hands being the most sensitive part. Mostly, we experience the sensation of touch through our hands. Before we put a peach in our mouth, we use our hands to pick it up and instantly feel the furry skin on the peach. We have a bite and feel that the skin is quite chewy and we also experience that furry texture on our tongue, which is quite dry.
The sense of touch in tasting terms can also be translated as mouthfeel. There are many ways to express the sense of touch: Such as the shape, sensation, weight, or texture that is experienced by your tongue. Most will be familiar with describing these experiences through our hands and it is transferable when relating mouthfeel. There are many ways to describe mouthfeel, we will elaborate more on Chapter 7.
Let’s do an experiment together:
Prepare a glass of full-fat milk and skimmed fat milk (UK Standard).
Taste both milk. There are plenty of ways of doing this. You can swirl it around your mouth and “chew” the milk.
Identify the sensation you receive from tasting these milk with different fat contents. Examine the differences in every step from putting the milk in your mouth, till you swallow it. For example, the level of creaminess that coats your tongue after swallowing or the weight of the milk while swirling.
Based on the experiment we did (above), here’s a list of terms you may have experienced:
SENSE OF SIGHT
The sense of sight dominates the majority of our lives. Appearance is always the experience we first come across with food, cars, people, houses...etc. Then we create our own perspective and make assumptions about the thing or person we just saw. Because of this, it plays a major part in our multi-sensorial experience, when eating.
During our gastronomic experiences, after we’ve seen the food or beverage, we usually have a strong idea about what it should taste like, based on the colour or decoration of it. Once we see the food, the visual data will be sent to the thalamus to process and then interact with other sensory data. We will then start to salivate based on the sensory data we received.
Most of the sensory information we gathered is from our past experiences of eating. If we dye white wine with red food coloring, would we identify the difference if it is compared with a glass of red wine? The colour could deceive us or change our perspective toward the food and beverage we are about to consume. Other than that, the packaging of the products or the design of the restaurants also influences our perception when experiencing it. Eventually, if we really want to analyse the food and beverage without any prejudice, it is best to control all of the tasting elements from the colour of the light, container/vessel, the tasting room’s furniture, or even its carpet...etc.
SENSE OF HEARING
The sense of hearing dramatically affects our multisensory experience in dining. It has a huge psychological impact on our physiology. For example, the background music in the restaurant can manipulate the consumer’s behaviour. If the background music is very fast, which is communicating a busy vibe, then the consumer might eat really fast and leave the place quickly. If the restaurant plays really slow and elegant music, the customers would sink into a slow pace and take their time. We can see these examples everywhere when comparing fast-food chains and fine dining restaurants.
Furthermore, the sound of the food might affect our perception of freshness and deliciousness. The most famous experiment is done by Charles Spence, who is the Professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford. The experiment is about identifying our audio perception of fresh and stale crisps by their crunchiness when consuming. The result suggested that there is a strong connection relating fresher and crunchier crisp to a higher level of sound.