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The Science of Flavour

7 January 2020

Vuse NZ - The Science of Flavour

We all know there are a variety of flavours in vapour. But the science of flavour is much more complex – and fascinating – than it seems.

Here are four things you might not know about flavour science – and how our experts use it to formulate our eLiquids.

Taste and Flavour are different
Taste and flavour are not the same thing at all. Taste is what you experience on your tongue: the sweetness of chocolate, the bitterness of grapefruit, the sourness of vinegar, and the saltiness of anchovies, for example, are all aspects of taste.

In recent years there’s also been a fifth recognised category: ‘umami’. Literally meaning ‘deliciousness,’ it’s the glutamate flavour – a derivative of glutamic acid - which gives soy sauce its tang.

As Vuse’s liquid and flavour developer, Montserrat Sanchez explains, “flavour is more complex than just taste. It’s the multidimensional experience of the taste: the aroma, the intensity, and the sensation, such as coolness or heat.”

Aroma is perhaps the most sophisticated aspect: there are about 2,500 chemical compounds related to it, and 1000 receptors which trigger it.

Sound – such as the crunch of a cracker – also stimulates receptors which add to our sense of flavour. There are also other aspects which are currently less well understood, such as the relationship between flavour and our sense of touch, such as creaminess, sliminess or grittiness in the mouth.

Flavour science also identifies two less well-known aspects of flavour: interoception – sensations which you feel inside your body, and trigeminality – the sensations the food produces perceived by the trigeminal nerve. The coolness of mint, the burning of chili, and the fizziness of fizzy drinks are all trigeminal sensations. They trigger the trigeminal nerve so you sense the food in a way that goes beyond just taste.

Some people have 'better' taste than others
In the nineties, an experimental psychologist called Linda Bartoshuk noticed that some of the people she and her colleagues worked with seemed to have a very sensitive response to taste. Further research revealed that these ‘supertasters’, as they became known, were different at a genetic level, and may even have had more taste-buds than usual.

That sensitivity is a similar skill to the one our Vuse flavourists use to refine our liquids until they are exactly right. “We’ll do 20 or 30 different formulations,” explains George McLachan, our Product Development Executive, “to see what the flavour profile is like and try out different combinations. For example, we suggest that there’s a couple of compounds that we could lower or increase, to give the flavour a more fruity note, or a vanilla note.”

For a long time, flavour was misunderstood
Some people might remember being taught at school that the human tongue has different areas which are sensitive to different tastes. Sweet tastes were supposed to be activated at the front of the tongue, bitter at the back, and with sour and salty perceived by spots on the sides of the tongue. As it turns out, this was completely wrong. It was based on erroneous research by a scientist called DP Hanig and somehow continued to find its way into some textbooks even after it had been debunked. In fact, all taste buds have up to a hundred receptors for every type of taste.

Background sounds make a difference
In 2011, the journal Food Quality and Preference published a study showing that loud background noises suppressed the ability to taste food which was salty and sweet, and reduced the overall enjoyment of food. In fact, the background noise on planes could influence the foods people choose.

For example, tomato juice and bloody marys are examples of umami – a taste type which background noise does not suppress. And air hosts and hostesses notice that sure enough, many people order those drinks on flights. Is it because we instinctively know that their flavour won’t be diminished by the noise of the flight?

The Vuse Flavour wheel
At Vuse, we use a flavour wheel to divide and subdivide taste into aroma territories, sub-territories, flavour profiles, feel, and intensity levels. That gives us a guide which helps us to concoct a multitude of blending combinations, and add ‘notes’ from one territory of a flavour to another.

For example, we can make one strawberry flavour which is more like strawberries fresh from a garden, and another which is more like strawberry jam.