Flavor the Difference

Imagine . . . the aroma of homemade, whole-wheat bread baking in your oven . . . the sweet, juicy taste of a ripe peach—just picked . . . the cool sensation of ice-cold milk . . . the crispy crunch of a raw carrot; the smooth, creamy texture of chocolate ice cream; or the fiery feeling of a hot chile pepper!

There's no question: foods that appeal to your senses are probably those you enjoy most! Sensory stimulation evokes food memories. The more senses a food or meal affects, the more vivid the flavor memory, positive or not. What is flavor? And how does it contribute to nutrition?

Flavor is actually several sensations closely linked together: taste plus smell, as well as touch (temperature and mouth feel). Sound, perhaps the crunch of an apple, and sight may contribute to flavor, too. With one sensation diminished, your flavor experience is entirely different. As an experiment, hold your nose so you can't smell, then bite an onion. It may taste somewhat sweet, more like an apple. Or think about food's taste when your nose is stuffed up—not much flavor, not much pleasure either. About eighty percent of food's flavor is aroma.

As an average adult, you have about ten thousand taste buds, which respond to different tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and also umami (the brothy, meaty, and savory flavor of glutamate). You can sense all these tastes on every part of your tongue. Some parts of the tongue may be especially sensitive to certain tastes—

for example, bitter will taste stronger at the back of the tongue. Even the lining of your mouth, the back of your throat, your tonsils (if you still have them), and your epiglottis (a flap of tissue that covers your larynx, preventing food and liquids from entering the airway) have some taste buds, especially in childhood.

Aromas that waft through the room get picked up by smell receptors high up in your nasal passages. Temperature, mouth feel, even the "irritation" from a jalapeno pepper or the "numbing" effect from a persimmon also affect your perceptions of food and its flavor—and what you may describe as its "taste."

Not surprisingly, we're born with an ability to perceive, and a preference for, sweet tastes. To some degree, we can perceive all tastes at birth—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Flavor preferences are learned—starting from the early years.

Why does the same food taste too spicy for some

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