Neurogastronomy is a relatively new and highly exciting branch of science: the study of how the human brain interprets flavors. Pioneered by prominent neuroscientist Gordon M. Shepherd, this evolving field is constantly finding new points of connection in our relationship with food. We’ve learned that our brains can distinguish and process far more individual tastes than we had originally thought; in addition to sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory, there are at least seven more tastes that are individually recognized by our tongue’s taste receptors.
One of the more remarkable discoveries is that our sense of smell not only is the most important stimuli in defining our relationship with food, but it is more complex than we had originally thought. Contrary to popular belief, humans have a much stronger sensory system than most animals.
There are two types of smelling: ortho and retro. Ortho is when scent goes directly into receptors in the nasal cavity, which is how most animals smell; those with particularly legendary abilities, like dogs, have thousands of more receptors than humans, which is partially why we’ve underestimated the power of our senses for so long. We interpret many scents directly through our noses, but it’s our retro smelling—upwards through the mouth—that truly separates us from animals.
When scents enter the mouth, they proceed up the mouth ceiling to be interpreted by the nasal receptor. They are also being processed by additional receptors located on the tongue and palate. Neurogastronomy is focused on how the brain interprets individual stimuli; tying them together into one singular sensory package. Years of research led neuroscientists to discover that, biologically, the human brain will map a smell in the same way it will commit the features of a face to memory. You can experience a particular smell decades after the first time you were exposed to it, and it will feel as if you were seeing an old friend. The mental images our brain creates from taste and smell memory are what drive cravings and keep us returning to the same foods over and over again throughout our lives.
Neurogastronomy plays a huge factor in our jobs at McCormick Flavor Solutions, and our work with “experiential eating.” When we create a flavor, it’s about far more than just enjoyment: it’s about understanding the biological processes of smell so we can evoke a specific time or place, or perhaps a particular emotion. We use taste to transport the "eater" out of their current surroundings, and take them back into another moment their lives.
As a research chef, when we work with clients to build memorable eating experiences for their customers, we’re also, very literally, building memorable brand identities. To learn more about how we can help you deliver memorable flavors, contact your McCormick Account Manager or contact us here today.