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10 Surprising Things That Affect Your Taste

Pleasing taste buds is a science and art, especially when you make nutrition products globally. Learn what factors affect your taste buds and why.

Woman tasting a salad
Aug 23 2017

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 sense of taste – 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 where we now live.

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. That’s especially important when making global nutrition products for people with health needs. Whether its Ensure® nutrition shakes, or Glucerna® snacks for people with diabetes, or dehydration-fighting Pedialyte® for kids and adults, how do you deliver nourishment people need in flavors they’ll enjoy?

That’s where TASTE comes in.

Around the world, Abbott scientists and researchers partner with flavor houses and rigorously trained and certified taste panel experts to research key flavor and texture attributes, while also tapping into consumer focus groups to create products that taste good. For example, R&D centers in Singapore, China and India allows the company to respond to flavor profiles popular in Asian regions more quickly. And R&D facilities in Europe and in the U.S. develop flavors for those regions and 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.” 

Flavor Scientist

Photo:  Monica Tortorice, senior flavor scientist, works with a new prototype. 

It’s not an easy task, says Portland, Ore.-based food anthropologist Ken Rubin, who’s also chief culinary officer of the online Rouxbe Cooking School and previously chaired the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Culinary Trust: “You can’t really isolate the way something tastes from the way it smells and feels – even the way it sounds. 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 might be surprised about why you crave flavors you do – and what that says about you. Here are 10 surprising factors that impact your sense of taste, no matter where in the world you live.

1.  It starts in the womb.
Your experience with taste begins before you enter the world, says Carolyn Alish, Ph.D., who’s a registered dietitian and certified flavor profile specialist for Abbott. A mom’s amniotic fluid – and her breast milk – is influenced by her diet. Research shows that babies who experience these tastes early are more likely to accept them later in life.

2.  Culture reigns supreme. “The top thing that influences taste is your cultural background,” says Abbott senior sensory and consumer scientist Teresa Vollmecke, Ph.D.  – “and specifically, what cooking you grew up with.” It’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 said. “Since we use dairy proteins in our products, kesar bedam was a great option because it’s a common food flavor in the country.” 

 The nose knows. “The other thing that really influences taste is your sense of smell,” Vollmecke says. “The biggest part of taste are the olfactory receptors.” Women of child-bearing age “have the most sensitive sense of smell. That gives them an advantage for testing” food and beverage products – and sharing their feedback.

4.  It’s in the genes.
While Vollmecke says geography and personal experience play important roles when it comes to taste, “there are some genetic factors” at work. Take your sensitivity to bitter flavors, for example.

5.  Names are part of the game.
There’s a reason, says Vollmecke – a specialist in psychology and consumer science – that “’Rich Chocolate’ sounds so much more appealing than just ‘Chocolate.’” And as Tortorice explains, giving nutritional products the same name as popular consumer foods raises the bar. 

Photo: Aroma plays a key role in sense of taste. Sensory scientists discuss the lastest Ensure® samples in the taste kitchen. 

6.  Mental memories.
If someone tells you to imagine the taste of a large, juicy lemon, Vollmecke says, you’ll think about “how yellow it is, the puffiness of its skin. You can imagine it in more detail, and your mouth will start salivating. It’s expectation based on memory.” It’s all about accessing the cognitive aspect of taste.

7.  Looks matter.
Mom always said it’s what’s inside that counts, but appearance and thickness definitely matter when it comes to consumers’ choice of products. Based on what they consider “optimal appearance and aroma,” Abbott data studies from trade panels found that “with chocolate, darker is usually better,” Vollmecke says. Reducing a product’s gray tinge makes it more appealing to the eyes – and that’s where it all starts.

8.  Illness and disease.
Illnesses and even accidents can affect your sense of taste, says Vollmecke, as do some conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And cancer patients – both as a result of their illness and its treatment – also experience taste changes and loss of appetite. “Generally,” she says, “it’s not a steady decline just because you get old.” And speaking of ….

9.  Early exposure.
Want your child to become an adventurous eater with an expanded flavor palate? Starting them out young by trying 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 food or beverage is served piping hot, at room temperature, or somewhere in-between “definitely affects the aromatics that stimulate the olfactory system,” Vollmecke says. “We find we get different flavor profiles with a product it it’s warm vs. cold.”

With people around the world more connected than ever, thanks to the Internet, smartphones and fast travel, it’s no surprise we’re broadening our flavor palates.

“The world’s getting more exposed to each other’s profiles and ingredients,” Tortorice says.  Across the globe, different flavors are emerging as favorites in different regions. In Europe, says Tortorice, passionfruit, mango, ginger, red currant, and blackberry are becoming more prominent, whereas in Southeast Asia and China, pomegranate, pineapple, raspberry and walnut are on the rise.

But even as new flavor trends sweep across regions, some favorites stay the same. Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, Tortorice says, still are Abbott’s top-selling nutrition flavors around the globe. Why? Everyone can relate to these common flavors in foods, candies or drinks they’ve enjoyed most of their lives. 

Flavor Favorites From Around the World


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