Try this blind taste test and feel like a loon

Popular Science - - CONTENTS -

OUR FIVE SENSES—TASTE, TOUCH, smell, hear­ing, and sight—don’t func­tion in vac­u­ums. They work to­gether in in­tri­cate ways. Con­sider this: With our eyes cov­ered and our nose plugged, we prob­a­bly can’t dis­tin­guish an ap­ple from an onion.

Without our eyes to see, an ap­ple is an ap­ple and an onion an onion be­cause of its taste, odor, and tex­ture. To­gether, these at­tributes cre­ate what we call fla­vor, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing one food from an­other.

When we eat, re­cep­tors on our tongues de­ci­pher two things: tex­ture and taste. To iden­tify taste, these re­cep­tors pick up odor­less sub­stances known as non­volatile chem­i­cal com­pounds. These molec­u­lar mix­tures tell us the five char­ac­ter­is­tics com­monly as­so­ci­ated with fla­vor (bit­ter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami—or sa­vory). The prob­lem is that those at­tributes are sim­i­lar in ap­ples and onions, says Soo-Yeun Lee, a pro­fes­sor of food sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-Cham­paign. Both pieces of pro­duce have about the same de­gree of crunch­i­ness and are sim­i­larly sweet-yet-tart.

So, our tongues alone are not equipped to tell a Fuji from a Gala ap­ple, let alone a pome from an onion. For that, we must rely on the odors our noses pick up. As we chomp, foods also re­lease volatile chem­i­cal com­pounds. This fla­vor rain rises up in the mouth, through the back of the throat, and into the retronasal pas­sage—the tube that con­nects the nose and throat. There, odor re­cep­tors in­ter­pret the volatile com­pounds’ dis­tinct aro­mas, adding to our per­cep­tion of what the food is. Plug­ging our noses pre­vents air­flow to the pas­sage, min­i­miz­ing (or even elim­i­nat­ing) the odors.

Without our senses of sight and smell, we’re screwed. Other food pairs might have the same funky ef­fect. Try bit­ing the wa­teryand-sweet water­melon and cu­cum­ber flesh, and don’t-see (or smell) for your­self.

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