Think you know what vanilla tastes like? You don't.
That's because vanilla has no taste, according to researchers at Oregon State University who have been studying the confluence of taste and smell and other senses that contribute to what people perceive as flavor.
'Vanilla has no taste at all,' says Juyun Lim, an OSU assistant professor of food science and technology. 'It's a smell, and the pleasant sensation is coming not from your mouth but from the nose, through the passage way between the back of the mouth and the back of the nose.'
Lim published her study, 'The role of congruency in retronasal odor referral to the mouth,' in the most recent issue of the scientific journal Chemical Senses. The point of her research is to determine why people love say, chocolate more than broccoli. The goal, Lim says, is to find tricks that may help people think the broccoli tastes just as good.
Taste and smell do not actually interact with each other, despite the nose's close proximity to the mouth. The mixing about occurs in the brain where there exist a taste center, a smell center and a third center called the orbital frontal cortex where taste and smell are integrated into one single perception, Lim says. That perception gets relayed back to the tongue where we perceive flavor.
Vegetables such as cauliflower and Brussels sprouts have a strong odor that makes animals shy away from eating them, even though they are now considered among the healthiest of foods. Lim says that if scientists can develop varieties of those vegetables that lose the smell, they might be more widely consumed.
Lim says the brain is already tricking us in similar ways.
'Hardly anyone really likes the somewhat bitter taste of coffee the first time they drink it, but they like the caffeine,' she says. 'Since the coffee makes them feel energized, they learn to like its flavor.'