By Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
Wondering what are the five taste senses? Let's dive into the five senses of food tasting and how the latest plant-based food technology is helping to improve our plant-based food experiences.
Have you ever bitten into the most delicious-looking plant-based burger only to be drastically discouraged by not only the lackluster taste, but also the disappointing mouthfeel? Just as we eat with our eyes, our other senses—taste, hearing, smell, and touch—drive how satisfied we are with the food on our plates and in our belly.
This is exactly why food technology company Motif FoodWorks’ scientists have been working day and night to solve food design challenges surrounding taste and texture and bring products to market that make the best-tasting plant-based burger possible. As a plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist, I am beyond excited about these food-science advancements!
Without further ado, I’m going to use the example of Motif’s food technology to walk you through how the five senses of food tasting do the amazing to elevate the plant-based eating experience. Now, that’s something to look forward to, right?!
Thank you to Motif FoodWorks for sponsoring this blog post. All opinions are my own, as always.
How technology can shape your eating experience through the senses
I recently chatted with Mike Leonard, PhD, the chief technology officer at Motif FoodWorks, who’s overseen all the exciting food technology advances that will soon make the most.delicious.ever plant-based burger available to the public. (For a spoiler, take a look at this video that I made trying the burger firsthand.)
Think about a burger on the grill—its sizzle, its juices, the smoky way it smells. Each of these elements are synthesized by your brain to tell you what to expect in your eating experience. You could think of a “win” in food enjoyment when you use all your senses to whet your appetite, followed by that moment when you sink your teeth into a delicious burger. Bliss—right?! Unless it doesn’t meet the picture you’ve shaped in your mind.
“It’s clear that [many] people want to eat fewer animal products and more plants,” says Leonard. “So, what’s standing in their way? Flavor and texture that miss the mark.” That’s why Motif is focusing on sensory-based innovations. “Our focus is understanding the fundamentals of how food works so we can identify the root problems to be addressed and design a solution,” he says. “To do this, we are reinventing the way science is applied to make better tasting, more nutritious plant-based foods that people will actually crave.”
Now, let’s explore those five senses!
Sense of sight
When it comes to eating, we really do eat with our eyes. Think about when you look at a juicy, grilled burger. You see a red-tinged burger, a perfectly crisped golden-brown burger bun, bright red tomatoes, and vibrant lettuce leaves. What you see allows you to make an initial decision: Do you want to eat that or not?
Sight may be the most important sense. In fact, 70% of people say that of all their senses, they would miss their sense of sight the most, according to a poll from YouGov Omnibus, a London-based research data and analytics group. And in a study by University of London researchers, 88% of people ranked sight as their most valued sense. So, if that plant-based burger doesn’t look appetizing, how on earth will it taste good?
“Sight sets up what we expect food to taste like and whether it appears safe to eat or not,” says Leonard. “We are looking for technologies that replicate the experience consumers expect. For example, our extrudable fat uses unique oleogel technology that has the potential to replicate animal fat, allowing for more authentic textures and appearance—such as marbling in plant-based meat alternatives.”
Sense of taste
Beyond what your food looks like, taste will keep you coming back to eat that food again and again. When it comes to delicious plant-based burgers, you have not only the smoky, flame-grilled patty to consider—but also the tangy, sweet ketchup it’s paired with. The tastebuds on your tongue act as taste receptors so you’re able to experience all the tastes of bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami that relay signals to your brain.
But current plant-based meat options are lacking. “Our research [Motif Sensory Studies 2019] shows that [the currently available plant-based] foods fail to satisfy, with 43 to 55 percent of consumers indicating significant sensory gaps in taste and texture,” notes Leonard.
Motif’s food technology HEMAMI™ helps to solve this problem: It boasts the same heme-binding protein you’ll find in cow tissue—without the cow. As a new food technology, HEMAMI™ has been reviewed and is certified by the FDA as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)—meaning work has been done by qualified experts to show it is safe to consume. It has also been enjoyed in burgers sampled by consumers, influencers, and celebrities. HEMAMI™ provides umami flavor and meaty aroma to burgers and other plant-based meat alternatives.
“These have been missing from meat alternatives in this space,” notes Leonard. “In fact, HEMAMI™ is no different than the heme protein found in beef; it’s simply produced in a novel way, called precision fermentation.”
Sense of hearing
It might seem odd to think about how sound plays a role in your food experiences. Interestingly, in the University of London study, people ranked hearing as the second most-important sense. And when it comes to food preparation, sound plays a role from the moment you begin preparing food to the time you’re licking your lips after the last bite. You hear the sizzle from the grill as your burger is cooking—and then the crunch of lettuce as you take a bite.
When your brain is happy with these food sounds, it tells you, “yum.” Indeed, “sound can trigger an emotional response that impacts how we choose foods or feel about certain flavors,” says Leonard. “This can enhance or take away from your eating experience.”
Sense of smell
Taste and smell are strongly interconnected. You smell first and taste second. When your nostrils inhale the smoky scent from the grill, your sense of smell is alerting you that the burger you’re about to bite into will taste incredible. “Between 75 and 95 percent of the flavors we taste come from what we smell,” notes Leonard.
“Food is a holistic sensory experience, and we are using the science of sensory perception to achieve an entirely new level of deliciousness in plant-based foods,” says Leonard. Motif’s HEMAMI™ works on overdrive to impart mouthwatering aroma—both as the plant-based meat is cooked and when you bite down into it.
Sense of touch
The sense of touch can play a huge role—from the softness of a burger bun in your hands to the warmness and rich texture of a plant-based meat patty in your mouth to the crunchiness of lettuce as you bite into it—when it comes to food experiences. And interestingly, the sense of touch is one of the first to develop, as preliminary animal research in the journal Science reveals that the sense of touch develops prior to birth.
First, there’s the touch you feel with your hands. “Touching foods directly with our hands makes eating even more enjoyable as well as the texture of the food itself,” says Leonard. “Texture is one of the toughest problems to tackle.”
Then when you’re eating, touch comes to play via mouthfeel: how a food feels while we chew it. Motif developed APPETEX™, which recreates the texture of animal tissue and springy bite quality with plant-based ingredients. APPETEX™ imparts the springy, juicy chewdown you’d expect from a burger. “We utilize breakthroughs in materials science for products, like to make plant-based ingredients behave like animal tissue to create real meaty texture and bite down,” says Leonard.
Next time you bite into a plant-based burger—or any favorite dish—think about how the five senses guide your eating experience. Discover more about “How our brain tastes food” here.
I'd love to hear from you! Let me know your thoughts on the 5 senses of food tasting.
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