Taste vs. Flavor; Splitting Hairs

A student of writing learns early on to avoid using the same word too many times in a paragraph. Thus when writing about food, we look for various words to describe taste.

For example, I could write, “The strawberries I picked yesterday at Berringer farm tasted exactly like I remember them.”

The second sentence would avoid saying, “After one bite the strawberries’ taste transported me……” Instead I might write, “After one bite the red berries flavor transported me to childhood, and I was ten again following my grandmother through row after row.” To avoid sounding clumsy, I would substitute red berry for strawberry, and change taste to flavor.

Having written about cooking and food here for tasting menu, and before that Phatduck, my old blog, for nearly 4 years, I used taste and flavor interchangeably to avoid this clumsy repetition in my writing. I did this without a thought to the true meaning of these two words. But the more I talk about food, and most importantly, listen to people more educated than me about food, I hear these words used with more exacting definition. It may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s important to understand the fundamental difference between taste and flavor.

Taste is physical. Taste is one of our 5 senses. It is a sensory function, in which receptors, or taste buds, found mostly on our tongue receive chemical information. This chemical stimuli received by our taste buds is transduced into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. Once in the brain these electric signals are interpreted into information which we use to gain perception.

We can only taste 5 things; bitter, sour, salty, sweet, umami.

Flavor however, is the combined perception of food using all information received from all five of our senses. During the process of eating, we use all five of our senses to receive physical information from food. Once in our brain, this information becomes the perception. Thus flavor is cognitive, meaning that the recognition of flavor happens post-sensory.

It would be logical, that because we put food in our mouth, the sensory receptor for taste, that taste is the sense we use the most in perceiving flavor. But instead we rely most heavily on our sense of smell. While our sense of taste can only give us 5 pieces of information about a food, our sense of smell can give us a seemingly limitless amount of information.

Both taste and smell receptors receive chemical information. Our sense of touch receives pressure, which is detected by nerve endings in our skin that respond to variations in pressure. The sense of sound is received by a membrane in our ears that vibrates in reaction to sound waves (our ear drum.) Our sense of sight depends on our eyes to detect electromagnetic waves of light, which is transduced into information that we use to interpret images.

Taste is a mere 5 pieces of information, but flavor is infinite. Taste is chemical, while flavor is a mental construct that doesn’t exist outside our mind.

We can grow as cooks if we think beyond taste and recognize how influenced flavor is by the stimulation of all five of the senses. We can remember this not only when creating a dish, but when reproducing it on the line night after night. If a crisp element becomes soggy from improper storage, aural sensation will be diminished, and the crunch that makes the dish exciting will be missing. Without the increased stimulation of our sense of sound, the flavor of that particular dish isn’t as exciting. The diner may never know that they were missing this crunchy stimuli, but they will recognize better flavor, which we know we can manipulate by understanding how food stimulates all five senses.

Likewise, hot food tends to release more aroma, increasing the amount of odor compounds our nose detects, thus increasing the perception of flavor. So taking the proper steps to ensure that the food arives at the table hot, not just warm, will ensure that we excite the nose as well as we can.

When we practice our craft as cooks, particularly working on a line, it’s easy to become isolated from fact that the process of cooking is only half of an equation. Another person, a seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, tasting body awaits our product, prepared to begin their own individual process of flavor perception.

7 Responses to “Taste vs. Flavor; Splitting Hairs”

  1. Sean says:

    Heston Blumenthal’s “Sea” dish would seem to be a great example of an exploration of flavor by exploiting nearly all the five senses in the dining experience. Great writeup.

  2. Chris says:

    This is a hair-splitting comment – but you did ask for it.

    I think the basic distinction you’re drawing (between the experience of eating and the deliverances of the five receptors on our tongue) is an important one, and every chef should bear it in mind. But I also think you’re quite wrong to suggest that the English words ‘taste’ and ‘flavour’ refer to different sides of this distinction.

    Do you really think that it’s literally false, or somehow imprecise to claim that, for example, chili tastes hot? Surely not – but that’s what your claim about ‘taste’ implies.

    The real difference between ‘taste’ and ‘flavour’, surely, is just that ‘taste’ is a verb (that can be made into a noun) while ‘flavour’ is noun (that can be made into a verb). So – ‘I taste the soup’ means something obviously and non-subtly different from ‘I flavour the soup’. The first of these I do with a spoon. The second I do with a pinch of salt and a bouquet garni (except in the special case where I am a chicken and the soup is made out of parts of me.)

    Great blog – Eating food is so much more fun when you think about it!

  3. dana says:

    Chris

    You can bend words to mean many things. But to hack down to the root of the literal definition, then I believe yes I am correct.

    A dictionary search will give definitions of taste as both a noun and verb, and of those categories there are multiple definitions. One doesn’t negate the other. The particular definition I was splitting, was the definition in which taste is a synnonym of flavor.

    My claim in no way implies that the word taste should no longer be used in all it’s contexts.

    It isn’t incorrect to say that chili’s taste hot, particularly if you argue, like some do that the sensation of hot is infact a sixth taste. However, we understand from the context of the statement, “chili’s taste hot” that you are using the word taste to refer to the post sensory recognition of the chemical stimuli, not the chemical tastants and odorants themselves. Context also makes it clear that you aren’t saying that a chili can taste something.

    Language itself is so fluid, that the dictionary definition is rarely the only meaning a word has, particularly when you begin to distinguish the differences between the spoken language and the written language, and look into dialects. There isn’t really a right or wrong in language, simply a currently accepted implication that society agrees on. The implication of the word taste certianly means everything you write, but it also means everything I wrote as well.

    It would be interesting to see if other languages have separate words for the various meanings of the word taste, rather than relying on context to make the definitions clear. I know that in german to eat is essen, but when animals eat, it is fressen.

    This post wasn’t intended to change the way we use language, certianly not. It was simply an excercise in thinking about the words we so frequently use, and using deeper understanding to better our own thought processes.

    At the root, I believe that taste and flavor aren’t simply a variation of the same word, used as noun versus verb. I believe that flavor is a construct of the mind’s perception, where as taste is a physical, chemical property.

    But from a language perspective, I believe the words can be used interchangably until the english language assigns new words for the various definitions of taste and flavor.

  4. Beyond even language, taste and flavor are scientifically defined as different. I’m a chef with an English degree but I work closely with a professional home economist and I’ve learned from her library of books that the physiology of taste is a fascinating science.

    In our recipe development practice we use hedonic and amplitude charts to remind ourselves of the differences between taste and flavor and to help us to develop recipes well.

    I love your post Dana because it is essential that chefs learn this kind of science if they want to serve their customers well. I recently delivered a presentation at the IACP conference about how people of boomer age face physiological changes in their mouths that affect their ‘taste’ in food. Then I also talked about how their preferences and sociological background is a type of ‘taste’, too.

    What I’m really trying to say is that we use these words (and many others) in a number of ways but understanding how we use them and thinking a bit about them occasionally will help us to be better at our jobs.

  5. Qaiser Mustafa says:

    As I see it is such a topic which requires long discussion as every step takes you to the depth of its own source, This is just as to differentiate mind and brain.Flavor components are certainly different and having separate attributes from taste.Taste is a combination of mouth feel, bulk of the food and consistency itself.Where as flavors are enriched with and are closer to aromatic attributes.When we perceive them, it is holistic approach. With a flu condition, we cant not even taste and smell, which proves that nature has gifted man to evaluate the things with both the tools , taste through taste buds, and aroma and fragrance through nasal perceptions.So they are different but get along with each other, like day and night,

    The flavouists and perfumers are trained to develop flavors and perfumes their emphasis is one the notes of the chemicals like they are working on the color combination and musical notes.So this is more an art than science.Once the aromatic tones of flavors, fragrances are matched then the taste components are worked out only for flavors not for perfumes.So those are the best synthetic flavors in the world which provide taste along the aroma,flavors only with aromatic tones feel synthetic and artificial.

  6. susanto purwo says:

    It is a very interesting explanation about flavour and taste. But you did not mention clearly the difference between flavour and aroma.
    Can you describe this please.

  7. ying says:

    flavour = tast+ aroma

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