On November 3rd, 2015 we learned about

Tricking your brain to experience seasonings from smell alone

Our brains love shortcuts, especially when it comes to interpreting stimuli in the world around us. Most of the light taken in by our eyes doesn’t make for a clear image, but combined with saccades our brain can piece together a detailed, functional sense of vision. When we read, we skip parsing the phonics of each letter in a word and just recognize the collection of letters as chunk of information, even if the letters aren’t really in the right order. Our brain also fills in the blanks with food— associations from known flavors can be strong enough that our brain will “insert” the flavor of missing ingredients as long as a trigger smell is present. These bits of perceptual shorthand are automatic, and scientists are now working to leverage them to help us eat better by eating less of what we can taste.

While some foods can be dressed up in a variety of ways, others have more strongly entrenched identities in our memory. It’s hard to think of hard salami as anything but salty and savory, for instance. That association can be strong enough that your brain will assume that any experience of salami must include it’s signature saltiness. With that in mind, food scientists are looking for ways to add the minimum amount of salami odor to other foods to remind your brain about the salt too. They don’t want too much of these ‘phantom aromas,’ since people would be surprised and presumably unhappy about meaty-tasting crackers (maybe?) for example, but a trace amount should be enough to get your brain to decide that salt must be present as well, even when it’s not.

Acquired tastes

Aside from the relative quantities of each aroma, a huge complication in this idea is that these flavor associations aren’t universal or innate— they’re learned through cultural experience. So one person might grow up with vanilla being a sweet association, but another might couple it with more savory cooking. Since this research is being done primarily for mass produced, processed foods, pleasing every niche of people’s taste histories isn’t really desirable. This difficulty isn’t stopping researchers though, because the overarching goal of reducing the use of key ingredients in these foods is important enough to keep refining these techniques.

Healthier helpings

The underlying goal in all this is to be able to cut down on overused ingredients like salt and sugar without giving up the flavors that people like to eat. Many processed foods heavily depend on enormous amounts of salt and sugar so that they’re tasty and attractive, even after sitting on a shelf for four weeks. Attempts to simply reduce the amount of salt from some foods only accomplished reducing the amount of food sold, so researchers are hoping this sort of flavor-by-suggestion can allow them to cut back without customers noticing the difference.

Source: Tasting a Flavor That Doesn't Exist by Jenny Chen, The Atlantic

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