The Nose Knows Numminess
We all recognize the role of smell in whetting our appetites, conjuring emotions and stirring memories, yet those little buds on our tongues still get most of the credit for detecting taste. According to researchers in the field of neurogastronomy, however, we have it backward.
Taste buds evolved to detect basic notes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (the savory flavor of mushroom or soy sauce) to help us distinguish energy-rich carbohydrates, find essential salts, test foods for ripeness, detect toxins and identify proteins [source: Levin]. But it's the sensation of smell -- specifically, the retronasal smells that waft into the nasal cavity from the mouth as we savor food -- that forms the fuller picture of flavor in our brains. Smell is so nuanced that scientists have compared it to sight for the way it forms "pictures" of millions of flavor combinations and determines resemblances among them. Research has further linked the sense of smell to psychological well-being and neuroplasticity [source: Marano].
Molecular gastronomists, who try to understand the physics and chemistry of food for artistic and culinary effects, make careful use of odorants and aromatics in their creations, but the interactions between saliva and food make isolating the key smell-ecular elements difficult [source: This]. Oh, well. There's always marketing.