Flavor: Better Than Taste Or Smell

by Jason on May 17, 2013

in Member Content

IMG_0007As I continue to learn about tea, I also try to keep up with how teas are described, marketed, and presented. One of the most important elements in talking about teas is TASTE.

But what is taste? How does one experience taste? On one level, taste refers to the naming of the chemical components in tea. You may identify a taste as chestnut while I identify it as cashew. On this level, it may be harder to say that one name or association is better right or wrong.

The mechanics of tasting can be critical to a complete tasting experience. After all, if the chemical components don’t get to the receptors and the sensory information is not received and processed, there is no taste experience. I recently wrote about potential flaws in the slurping procedure many professional tea tasters employ.

I hope to continue to share information on how we can understand, and thereby improve our tasting experiences of tea.

Here are a few discoveries and conclusions that may change the way you drink tea for enjoyment, and the way you cup teas to assess their quality.

1. Tasting Includes Breathing, Swallowing, And Smelling

While this may seem obvious, odor particulates are travelling from your mouth to your nose when you are tasting a food or drink. There was a time when researchers assumed that the opening between mouth and nose was mostly closed during eating and tasting.

How the nose and mouth are used can have significant effects on overall perception of taste. While it appears that retronasal olfaction (smelling odors that traveled from the back of the mouth up to the nose) is not as accurate as orthonasal olfaction (traditional smelling through the front of the nose), swallowing and potentially other mouth movement can significantly improve retronasal olfaction.

2. Taste And Smell Become Combined And Blurred In The Mind

To a certain extent, flavor is a work of the brain when it combines taste and smell sensations. Researchers have found that a portion of the brain becomes activated, and seems to be involved in integrating taste and smell sensations. This portion of the brain is not active when taste and smell occur separately. That means that your mental constructs for flavor will be dependent upon simultaneously tasting and smelling a tea.

This association may also explain why tastes and smells can become fused. In another study, participants were asked to smell fragrances. Some of these fragrances were described using taste descriptors like sweet or salty. The nose does not detect taste. What happened was that their minds had encountered these aromas before, and taste associations had been triggered.

It is therefore probable that simply smelling a tea will not elicit a full, accurate experience of taste or flavor, or that those experiences and associations may not be correct. Likewise, trying to filter taste as separate from aroma may be difficult, or lead to disappointing results.

3. Spit Matters

Again, it is obvious that eating onions, garlic, or smoking can affect perception of flavor, but the basic environment of the mouth affects perception of taste. Saliva can enhance and diminish the tasting experience.

There is a basic protein present in saliva that is understood to bind with polyphenols (like the polyphenols in tea) to  diminish the perception of bitterness and astringency those polyphenols produce. Saliva also contains the amino acid glutamate, which could boost the umami character present in some teas.


Perception of flavor can be very complex. Saliva and mouth movements can enhance or detract from the experience. The brain can combine sensations to create a more unified experience.

The Research Encourages Me To:

1. Put the tea in my mouth. Swirl it. Hold it in my mouth, and breathe through my nose. The brain wants to create an integrated experience of taste and smell. Allow the nose and mouth to work together to create that experience.

2. Be prepared to detect a boost in aroma detection just before, during, and immediately after swallowing. I find that immediately after swallowing, I take a brief inhalation through my mouth, then exhale through my nose.

3. Allow your saliva to work its magic. After all, saliva will be there when you regularly drink the tea. It will likely contribute to that taste/smell fused perception that your brain creates. It will affect the memory you create of the tea. Of course, it helps if saliva and tea are not competing with residual tastes from other food or drink.

Nasal, retronasal, and gustatory perception: An experimental comparison
Burdach, Kroeze, and Koster. Perception & Psychophysics 1984, 36 (3), 205-208

Role of Saliva in the Maintenance of Taste Sensitivity
R. Matsuo. CROBM 2000 11: 216

Experience-Dependent Neural Integration of Taste and Smell in the Human Brain
Small, Voss, Mak, et al. J Neurophysiol 92: 1892–1903, 2004

When are oral cavity odorants available for retronasal olfaction?
Halpern. In Handbook of Flavor Characterization: Sensory Analysis, Chemistry, and Physiology.

Get even more in the Member Content.
Walker Tea Review- a tea blog with tea reviews and tea tastings.
Want to see a tea reviewed? Contact me: jason@walkerteareview.com

Subscribe in a reader or by email

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

TheOtherBob May 21, 2013 at 08:15

Jason, Great stuff here. Thanks much for the links to the primary sources. Look forward to reading more.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: