What happens when we taste food?

Since 1874, Symrise AG has been researching flavourful food ingredients. The company and Prof Thomas Vilgis, a project leader at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research and professor of theoretical physics at the University of Mainz, are working on a joint project to combine and add to existing expertise.

With surprising and popular scent and taste combinations, unexpected food pairings are a massive gastronomical trend. The approach assumes the more flavour components two products share, the better they taste together i.e. if two ingredients contain one of the same substance, they are compatible. The charm of food pairing lies in ingredients that although completely different and seemingly strange at first, occasionally have complementary molecules. Dark chocolate and chilli is one such example.

If these combinations taste especially good, then the chef has matched them successfully. The question to ask then is why do we prefer some tastes over others and exactly what happens when we taste food?

Avocado toast Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Why do some foods taste better together? Symrise AG is researching the science of flavour pairing

On the scent of good taste

Prof Vilgis established a working group for soft matter food physics to address these questions. This studies the physical aspects of food, including ingredients and their preparation.

Specifically, he analyses food and how flavours develop. The team is particularly interested in how individual ingredients behave in the mouth as each releases flavour in very different ways. Some substances reach receptors first and are the primary flavour. Others tend to stay in the background.

When we eat chocolate, sugar and how we perceive it plays an important role, as does the way cocoa butter melts in the mouth. Certain water-soluble flavour compounds and volatile fragrance compounds pair up. Saliva releases scent-producing molecules and influences how we perceive the chocolate’s texture as it transitions from hard to soft.

With this research, Prof Vilgis established a scientific foundation for molecular gastronomy. He collected his knowledge in a book titled Aroma – Die Kunst des Würzens (Flavour – The Art of Seasoning) (Vierich/Vilgis). Even at home, food ingredients that seem to be opposites can be combined appetisingly.

The perfect flavour pair

They are studying how the culinary arts can make use of the scientific findings from polymer research. The interaction of physics and cuisine creates the foundation for applied food science and thus product development at Symrise. Food technicians of the global group examine global recipes for harmonies and contrasts that make their natural ingredients taste particularly good. They thoroughly select ingredients, prepare individual steps for the meals and use the same tools as consumers would in their own kitchens.

Prof Vilgis and Dr Gerhard Krammer, head of flavour research and development at Symrise, work hand in hand. Prof Vilgis researches molecular food physics and Dr Krammer applies the findings in food manufacturing. Molecular gastronomy often uses these exact findings. Symrise offers its food and beverage manufacturers, consumers, tasty combinations that these companies then introduce to markets from Asia to South Africa.

The next chapter

The science of good taste can do even more, and it extends beyond research at institutes and universities and its use in the flavour industry. Until recently, the most important question was combinations of ingredients with harmonising flavours. In their joint project, the team are looking at which preparation methods produce the best flavour combinations. They consider how the physical properties of the ingredients change depending on the preparation method in addition to taste.

This could include questions whether fresh, green notes harmonise with fruity, juicy notes and if these ingredients should be roasted, grilled or smoked. It is also important to note taste largely depends on smell, how the scent of a dish is perceived. Good taste is a result of the harmonious combination of aromas. In cooking, you can create a specific taste by deliberately combining aromas – like a perfume. The combination of flavouring substances can have a huge impact on taste.

Group character/work

Prof Vilgis distinguishes between specific flavour groups that have characteristic flavouring substances. Symrise AG uses this knowledge to create the ideal flavour combinations for its products. Symrise application specialists know exactly what flavours appeal to the sense of smell and taste – particularly savoury. They know which taste components are heat-resistant and change when heat is added during the cooking process. For a typical meaty flavour, the Maillard reaction is necessary through pan-frying or heating something in the oven.

Based on this information, Symrise works with raw materials that emphasise complementary ingredients well to create a satisfying taste experience. The company also considers how the molecular structure can change the scent and ultimately the taste of food.

A culinary delight

The team skillfully infuse scientific findings into flavour combinations so that consumers can best enjoy soups, cold beverages or gums. At Symrise’s headquarters, there are facilities for processing flavours that resemble large pressure cookers and produce a similar flavour profile. They can also vary the concentration of the product and positively influence the intensity of the taste.

The company uses state-of-the-art measuring techniques to reach a consumer’s preferred taste. The flavour analysis in the lab supplements this with sensory panels. Panellists are specially trained and can detect and describe subtle differences in flavour. Symrise uses the results of the combined analysis to develop flavouring substances.

This is especially interesting given the rising demand for alternatives to animal protein sources, like soy, pea or oat proteins. These often have an unpleasant aftertaste or an off-putting texture or consistency. The company uses its findings to develop flavours for plant-based protein products. Due to its comprehensive application expertise, Symrise can offer solutions that tailor the taste of plant-based protein to consumer preferences. These include friction in the mouth, fracture properties when chewing and the taste and scent released.

Symrise has an eye on these parameters and is working on creating a pleasant mouthfeel and a convincing taste for modern meatless products. Knowledge of the effects of molecular structure on scent and taste is also applied here. Symrise is introducing flavour into reduced-salt dishes. ‘Our priority is the overall functionality of the ingredients to produce a flavourful product,’ Dr Krammer explains.

Food pairing 2.0 – A summary

Through their work, Symrise and Prof Vilgis have enriched classic food pairing with a decisive component. They are looking at the combination of similar food and the general molecular interaction of ingredients and their physical properties. Spice harmonises with sweet, savoury with juicy – roasted, sautéed or even cooled. Just as painters skillfully mix the colours of their paintings and complete the picture with an accent colour at the exact right spot, Symrise creates exciting solutions for the food industry with flavour compositions and the interactions between them enriched with the knowledge of our perception of taste in the mouth.

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