Flavor vs. Taste

Reader Susan writes:

Taste and flavor; two words that are often used interchangeably. Discuss.

Are you kidding? I can hardly wait! Technically speaking, the word “flavor” is more narrowly defined than “taste.” Sensory researchers define flavor as the set of sensations that occur on the tongue. Taste, on the other hand, is what happens on the tongue, in the sinuses, the ears…the whole shootin’ match. And it’s all related to chewing.

Chewing, as we all know, serves a vital functional purpose, to break up food so it can pass easily into the esophagus. But oh, it’s so much more than that. The act of chewing not only helps us “hear” what we’ve put into our mouths (as discussed in one of last weeks’ posts), it liberates essential oils and other volatile compounds, freeing them to pass upward through the nasal fossae at the back of the throat and into the nasal cavity. Which is where the magic happens. I’ll have much to say about that, but for now I wish to emphasize that the slower and more deliberately one chews, the smaller the pieces of food get in the mouth and the more essential oils are released.

Which raises a very interesting point about eating. Specifically, that the style in which one eats drastically impacts one’s experience. Slow eaters tend to not only chew more extensively, they also secrete more saliva, which further breaks down the food in the mouth, releasing still more volatile molecules. The added breathing that occurs during this slower mastication process also circulates those volatile molecules more extensively, and the sensory experience is heightened.

Fast eaters lose out on much of this, plus they tend to eat more, since satiety or “fullness” is communicated to our brains by our tasting mechanisms and not, as most people think, by our stomachs. The end result is that the fast eater takes in more calories, but enjoys them less. Oh, the irony.

9 thoughts on “Flavor vs. Taste”

  1. It is true that the stomach doesn’t signal that it’s full, but that’s not the full story. When the stomach is empty there is secretion of a hormone, ghrelin, which goes on to signal for food seeking behavior in the brain. When the stomach is filled, the stretch receptors are activated, and secretion of ghrelin is inhibited. This is part of why you feel more full 15 minutes after eating-there is a delay between the stretch receptors activating, loss of ghrelin secretion, and signalling through the brain that there is less signal for food intake.

    Appetite and satiation signalling can be best thought of as a balance. There are always some of both signals present, it’s just a matter of which is more prevalent.

    Sorry for the length reply-I actually research appetite and satiation signalling in the brain…this was as short as I could manage.

    1. Fabulous stuff, Faith! Thanks so much for takign the time to write this. Actually I had more planned on the taste sensation and satiety, but now I’ve got stage fright. Promise you’ll be easy on me today!

      – Joe

  2. Thank you, Joe! I will still probably use the word taste when I mean flavor sometimes by mistake (old habits die hard!) but this does help me sort them out better!

  3. Hmmm….I’m not sure I agree with your comment on fast eating. (And please understand I have no professional qualifications in this area at all, so I have no business making pronouncements like this.) But it seems pretty clear to me that there is a very robust neurotransmitter feedback loop, one that floods our brains with endorphins, simply when we eat very quickly. This, according to my theory, is entirely separate from the endorphin cascade involved with reaching satiety.

    Here’s my logic. We have a very powerful instinct to gulp down food; think the Simpsons at dinner. And it takes a lot of will power to resist that impulse, especially when we are eating alone, and thus free of social pressure to take it slow, to be polite, to make conversation, etc. That instinct has to come from somewhere, and my hunch is that it is hardwired into us. (It also seems common with animals in the wild.)

    So, again according to my theory, if you eat slow, you get LESS pleasure out of it; you eventually get the release of neurotransmitters from reaching satiety, but you miss out on all of those involved in wolfing down food. But again, I am just making this up.

    Perhaps I should apply for a grant to pursue this more, and spend a lot of time quickly eating good food while hooked up to an MRI.

    1. Love that: In Defense of Fast Easting. Take that, Michael Pollan! Reader Lee, I thank you.

      – Joe

  4. Hmmmm – this makes me think. How can we be sure that we all taste things in the same way?
    This is making my brain hurt. I guess we’ll never be able to answer this definitively………

    1. Hey Joy!

      How we know whether or not we’re all perceiving the same reality is a question the rationalists of the 17th century struggled mightily to answer. I recommend Descartes, Spinoza and Bishop Berkeley.

      Happy reading! 😉

      – Joe

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