The Sceptical Chymist | ACS: In the best possible taste

Published in Chemistry

One of the great things about ACS meetings is the incredible breadth of topics that are covered. In my quest to learn about branches of chemistry that are unfamiliar to me, this morning I attended a session of the division of agricutural and food chemistry. To be precise, the lectures were all about interactions between taste and smell.

I’ve always been intrigued by flavour chemistry, and the way that the body senses chemicals and interprets them as smells and tastes. So this session was a real eye-opener. I have to say that there wasn’t much that you could really describe as chemistry – not a chemical structure in sight, in fact. But here are some interesting factoids that you might be interested in.

First off, have you ever stopped to think about why some smells seem sweet or sour, when sweet and sour are tastes? Its all to do with associations in the brain. The associations become so hard-wired that if you smell something like strawberry while you’re eating something sweet, then the taste becomes sweeter. And if you smell caramel while you’re eating something bitter, the taste seems less bitter. Perhaps most remarkably, sweet smells can even improve your tolerance to pain.

The attention you pay to a taste can also affect your enjoyment of that taste – the more you try to analyse a flavour, the less you enjoy it. Which suggests that professional wine tasters enjoy wine less than joe public. And one final thought – if all this is true, then coffee will smell different depending on whether or not you use sugar. Speaking of which, it’s time for my latest caffeine fix…


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)

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