Think about the last thing you ate. Was it salty or sweet, spicy or bitter? Did it taste the way you expected, or did its flavor or texture catch you off guard?
Our taste perception — whether we deem a flavor delicious or wrinkle our faces in disgust — is a product of who we are. That means our genetics, cultural backgrounds, where we grew up, and even where we live now can influence how we feel about the things we eat every day.
It's no small feat to balance an ideal mix of nutrients, vitamins and minerals with good taste — but it's all in a day's work for nutrition and R&D (research and development) scientists at Abbott. This is especially important when making global nutrition products for people with special health needs. Whether it's Ensure® nutrition shakes, Glucerna® snacks for people with diabetes, or dehydration-fighting Pedialyte® for kids and adults, how do you deliver the nourishment people need in flavors they'll enjoy?
That's where understanding taste on a deep, expert level comes in.
Decoding the Science of Taste
Around the world, Abbott scientists and researchers partner with flavor houses and rigorously trained and certified taste panel experts to gain insight into key flavor and texture attributes. And because the customer is always right, they also tap into consumer focus groups to ensure they're creating products that taste good to the people who actually use them.
R&D centers in China, Singapore and India allow the company to focus on flavor profiles popular in Asian regions, while facilities in Europe and the United States prioritize flavors for those respective regions as well as in Latin America.
"Our mission is to make products that have the best taste, texture and aroma possible," says Monica Tortorice, a senior flavor scientist at Abbott. "Our process is to look to real food, and benchmark other foods that have that flavor. We find the gold standard profile and then ask ourselves: What nutrients are standing out? What flavor notes need to be filled in? We then add those flavor keys and aroma compounds to make that preferred variety of dark chocolate or French vanilla."
The Root of Flavor Cravings
It's not an easy task, says Ken Rubin, a Portland, Oregon-based food anthropologist who's made a career out of understanding food preferences, flavors, and people's complex relationship with cuisine.
"You can't really isolate the way something tastes from the way it smells and feels — even the way it sounds," explains Rubin, who's the chief culinary officer of the online Rouxbe cooking school and previous chairman of the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Culinary Trust. "I think about taste as the result of the total sensory experience of food — not just how we consume food, but how we prepare and share it."
You know what foods you prefer, but you might be surprised by why you crave certain flavors — and what those cravings say about you. Here are 10 surprising factors that impact your sense of taste:
1. It starts in the womb. Your experience with taste begins before you enter the world, says Carolyn Alish, Ph.D., a registered dietitian and certified flavor profile specialist for Abbott. A mother's amniotic fluid and breast milk are influenced by her diet. Babies who experience these tastes early may prefer them later in life.
2. Culture reigns supreme. "The top thing that influences taste is your cultural background," says Dan Schmitz, director of Global Product Development at Abbott. "And specifically, what cooking you grew up with." That's why in India, Abbott launched PediaSure in kesar bedam, a saffron almond flavor. "That's a very classic, traditional Indian food served at certain holidays and festivals," Tortorice explains.
3. The nose knows. "The other thing that really influences taste is your sense of smell," Schmitz says. The biggest part of taste is the olfactory receptors, and women of child-bearing age have the most sensitive sense of smell.
4. It's in the genes. While Schmitz says geography and personal experience play important roles when it comes to taste perception, there are also some genetic factors at work. Some people have a heightened sensitivity to bitterness, for example, while others can be what's known as a supertaster — a person who has inherited more taste buds than average.
5. Names are part of the game. "There's a reason 'rich chocolate' sounds so much more appealing than just 'chocolate,'" says Schmitz. It's a sentiment Tortorice seconds, and it's why Abbott chooses popular flavors and names for its nutritional products.
6. Mental memories. When you imagine a food, you typically think about different aspects of it — the color, the texture, the smell. "If you can imagine it in more detail, your mouth will start salivating," explains Schmitz. "It's all about accessing the cognitive aspect of taste — expectation based on memory."
7. Looks matter. We've all heard this at some point over the years — it's what's on the inside that counts. But appearance definitely matters when it comes to consumers' choice of products. For Abbott scientists, studies from trade panels have been useful in pinpointing optimal appearance. "With chocolate, for example, darker is usually better," Schmitz says. "And reducing a product's gray tinge makes it more visually appealing."
8. Illness and disease. Illnesses and even accidents can affect your sense of taste, says Schmitz, as do some conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Those managing cancer may also experience taste changes and loss of appetite as a result of both their illness and treatments. "Generally," he says, "it's not a steady decline (in taste) just because you're getting older."
9. Early exposure. Picky eaters might be common, but having an aversion to certain tastes can be curbed. Encouraging young children to eat different fruits and vegetables can help shape and change their dietary preferences by the time they're 4-years old, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
10. Temperature counts. Whether a meal or beverage is served piping hot, at room temperature or somewhere in between, it affects the aromatics that stimulate the olfactory system — our sense of smell — Schmitz explains. "We find we get different flavor profiles with a product if it's warm versus when it's cold."
Because we all come from different walks of life, from vastly different quadrants of the globe, it's no wonder why our taste perceptions vary on such a large scale. But scientists are finding that in an increasingly connected world, people are more open to different flavors than they once were. In Europe, says Tortorice, passionfruit, mango, ginger, red currant and blackberry are becoming more prominent; while in Southeast Asia and China, pomegranate, pineapple, raspberry and walnut are on the rise.
But as Abbott continues to learn more about the science of taste, one thing remains clear: Many people just want something that's familiar to them. Despite the interest in new flavors, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are still Abbott's top-selling nutrition flavors around the globe, Tortorice says, proving some classics just never go out of style.
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The Science of Flavor: Explained
By Dan Schmitz, global director of Product Development and User Experience at Abbott There's more to flavor than what happens in your taste buds. It's a dynamic experience that draws on smell, sight, touch—and even your expectations, cultural upbringing and past experiences.