Pinch your nose while drinking your favorite beer, and you will hardly taste anything. This simple experiment shows that taste and smell both play a role in what we sense in the mouth as flavor.
Before there were food labels, we relied upon taste and smell to tell us what was safe to eat. Sweet and salty meant that food was full of much-needed nutrients. Sour or bitter signaled poison or danger.
Researchers from Oregon State University discovered that when we eat something with matching odor and taste—such as vanilla and sugar—the sense of flavor happens in the mouth.
This single sensation occurs as a result of the way our brain processes information from its separate taste and smell centers. A third area in the brain combines taste and smell, and sends it back to the tongue as flavor sensed in the mouth.
With mismatched odor and taste—like vanilla and salt—there is no combined flavor. The sensation of vanilla occurs in the nose as a smell, not in the mouth as before.
Even though the way we sense flavor is fixed in our bodies, much of flavor perception is learned. When you start to like coffee or beer, you are overcoming these built-in mechanisms.
The researchers think this can be applied to vegetables that people tend to avoid, such as brussels sprouts. Most people react negatively to their bitter smell, part of our ancient defense mechanism. If you could change the way brussels sprouts smell, then people might actually like eating them.