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The Science of Flavor

Posted: January 10, 2007

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Paul Breslin (University of Pennsylvania) and Bruce Bryant (Boston University) both discussed how flavor is processed and sensed in the body. They explained that flavor = olfaction + taste + chemesthesis (sensations that arise when chemical compounds activate receptor mechanisms for other senses, usually those involved in pain, touch, and thermal perception). Breslin’s research focuses on understanding the integration of taste and smell using a tool called fMRI to comprehend regional brain activity. He explained that flavors that “go together” can be sensed by the brain even if the person is not consciously aware of it or if the flavors are at weak intensities. His research hypothesis is that taste and odor congruency can be conditioned.

Bryant’s research focuses on the fact that chemical irritants, both noxious (e.g., tear gas or hot pepper) and mild (e.g., menthol or carbonation), act on pain as well as thermal and tactile receptor. Using fluorescence imaging of intracellular calcium and nerve recordings, Bryant is able to characterize the transduction processes and coding mechanisms involved in chemical irritation. Knowledge of these mechanisms has applications ranging from foods and beverages to pharmaceuticals and personal care products to designing repellents for managing animal pests.

Flavor Affecting Health

Can flavor affect how our food is metabolized? Karen Teff’s (McGill University) research seeks to find out just that. Teff investigates the role of the parasympathetic nervous system in glucose homeostasis and cardiovascular function. In her presentation, “Cephalic Phase Hormonal Responses: The link between flavor and nutrient metabolism,” she explains that activation of the parasympathetic nervous system taste has the chance to influence how food is metabolized. Specifically, Teff wanted to find out if increasing the cephalic phase insulin amount would improve metabolism. She explained that the results in fact showed that a supplement of insulin in early phase (pre-digestion) improves metabolism in obese participants. In addition, she found that fat activates the parasympathetic nervous system more than low fat/carbohydrates alone.