The real action happens in the brain. It decides what you are eating and whether it is safe or not.
In the brain, there's a taste center, and a smell center, and lurking just behind your eyes is a third center called the orbital frontal cortex, where taste and smell sensations are integrated into the perception of a single flavor. That verdict gets relayed back to the tongue and gives the impression of flavor in the mouth.
If you don't believe it, scientists say, there's a simple experiment to demonstrate the point. Take a sip of your favorite drink while pinching your nose, and see what it tastes like. Don't recognize it? Open your nose, and the familiar taste will reveal itself.
The mechanisms of flavor perception, including those that are both congruent and incongruent, probably evolved as a protective mechanism, Lim said. Foods that were sweet or salty were usually safe to eat and provided needed macronutrients, like carbohydrates and salt, and consequently those flavors came to be desired, she said. Sourness and bitterness, by comparison, often meant food was spoiled or contained toxins and were a warning sign not to eat it.
Those mechanisms served well to prevent a cave dweller from starving or getting poisoned, she said, but unfortunately they are still with us, and in today's world lead straight to ice cream, soft drinks and obesity. But even so, Lim said, flavor perception is still largely a learned behavior.
And if it's learned, she said, we should be able to teach it better, or find ways to work around these evolutionary instincts.
"Hardly anyone really likes the somewhat bitter taste of coffee the first time they drink it, but they like the caffeine," Lim said. "Since the coffee makes them feel energized, they learn to like its flavor."
As the understanding improves of how
|Contact: Juyun Lim|
Oregon State University