The Eyes Have It: Visual Cues Important For Perceiving Flavors

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

It has been said that people “eat with their eyes” before taking their first bite of any meal and a new study presented at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) suggests that the eyes can be even more important than the tongue when it comes to perceiving the flavors of foods.

“There have been important new insights into how people perceive food flavors,” said Cornell University´s Terry E. Acree.

“Years ago, taste was a table with two legs – taste and odor,” Acree explained. “Now we are beginning to understand that flavor depends on parts of the brain that involve taste, odor, touch and vision.”

“The sum total of these signals, plus our emotions and past experiences, result in perception of flavors, and determine whether we like or dislike specific foods,” he added.

For example, the food scientist cited the popular white wine Sauvignon Blanc. The wine´s natural chemicals recall the flavors of banana, passion fruit, and bell pepper. However, when the wine is dyed to look like a merlot or cabernet, people taste the flavors of those red wines.

Acree also noted that scents can often overcome the tongue when it comes to detecting flavor. He cited a psychologists´ test that asked volunteers to smell sweet foods and then take a sip of plain water. The volunteers tended to report that the water tasted sweet. However, when the volunteers repeated the experiment with savory foods replacing the sweet foods, volunteers did not report sweet-tasting water.

One of the most important factors in detecting flavors, which can override all senses, is memory, according to Acree. He pointed out that chilies, stews, candy bars and cooked sausages can resemble vomit or feces. However, many people savor these dishes due to the memory of eating and enjoying them in the past and others may resist trying these foods first the first time because they lack fond memories of their taste.

With the proliferation of “nose to tail” eating and shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, trying different and unique foods appears to be enjoying unprecedented popularity. Acree said that the human desire for novelty is also a factor for ignoring what the eyes and brain may be saying and paying more attention to the senses of smell and taste.

The food scientist noted that understanding the interactions among the senses will allow for developing healthful foods that are more appealing to picky eaters.

Another trend appears to be a play on the idea of eating first with the eyes — dining in the dark. Many cafes and restaurants are offering patrons the chance to enjoy their menus in total darkness. The theory is that depriving diners of their vision will force them to pay attention to how the food tastes and smells.

Many non-profit organizations who advocate for individuals with visual impairments use “dining in the dark” charity events to raise both funds and awareness of the challenges faced by the blind and visually impaired.