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The Science of Taste and Smell

Last week, during the final week of our 'Science of Cooking Class - with a Food Writer and an Engineer', Jenn and I talked to the kids about the science of taste and smell. And, after watching an episode of Brain Games, we decided to have the kids test their palate mettle by identifying foods while blindfolded and tasting foods while blindfolded and with their noses plugged.

Here's where we started the discussion...

  • What are the 5 senses?
  • Which ones affect how we taste food?

Here are some taste facts that Jenn shared...

  • Everyone has a different number of taste buds.
  • You can't taste very well if you can't smell.
  • Eating sweets forms a memory of a meal.
  • You can tweak your tastebuds.
  • Your tastebuds prefer savory when you're in an airplane.
  • Some of your taste preferences are genetic.
  • In fact, your genes determine whether cilantro tastes like soap to you or not.

On to the science of taste and smell...
You taste with your brain. Taste results from more than just tastebuds on your tongue. It's a combination of how a food smells, looks, and sounds. Also, how a person perceives taste has to do with nature and nurture.

Flavor vs. Taste
We differentiated between flavor and taste which you would think are synonymous. But plug your nose when you're eating and you'll quickly draw a distinction. Think about sweetness: a strawberry tastes sweet, but its flavor is a strawberry. Similarly: coffee tastes bitter, but its aroma can be nutty or roasted.

Tastes As We Age
As we age, our bodies get older (obviously) and so do our taste buds. Tastebuds have a short life and are replaced every few days. That regeneration timeframe slows as we get older and so our taste acuity declines. That's a perfect segue.

Our Tasting Results...
In the episode of Brain Games, the three culinary experts correctly identified all the foods while just blindfolded. When they were handicapped with no sense of sight or smell, two of the experts got them all wrong and one of the experts only got two of the five correct.

The kids fed each other bananas, apple sauce, chocolate pudding, dried fruit bars, beef jerky, and pickles. They tasted with blindfolds on; they tasted with blindfolds and holding their noses. With 8 teams, only 2 samples were misidentified. 

Jenn and I didn't have a chance to try it out for ourselves. Maybe that'll be a party game for our next dinner party.

How well do you think you would do in identifying foods if you couldn't see them? 
What about not being able to see or smell them??


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