Often used interchangeably, both taste and flavor are terms that describe how we experience food and beverages. While closely related, recognizing the subtle differences between their meanings can allow for a better understanding of flavor variations when tasting.
Though flavor is most often associated with our interpretation of how something tastes, taste on its own is just as important. Taste occurs only inside our mouths and refers to the sensory receptors that allow you to experience flavor while consuming food and beverages.
Taste functions both as a nutrient sensor and receptor for avoiding toxins. Our tongue has two kinds of receptors. The first receptor type, appropriately named “tastebuds,” is found all over our tongue. The second receptor type, commonly referred to as a “mouthfeel,” comprises free nerve endings covering the inside of the mouth and tongue which allow us to perceive texture. Through these two sets of receptors we are able to “taste” and “touch” food and beverages.
Flavor takes this understanding one step further in that it combines taste, mouthfeel, and aroma to produce an overall impression. Of these three chemical senses, smell is the main determinant of a food or beverage’s “flavor.”
While the taste of food is limited to sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (or savory), the smells of a food or beverage are potentially limitless. Flavor can be easily altered by changing smell, all while maintaining the same taste of the food or beverage. This is best exemplified in many artificially flavored jellies, candies, and soft drinks; while these goods are made from bases with a similar taste, they possess dramatically different flavors due to the use of different scents or fragrances.
So next time you dive into a plate of lasagna, for example, test your distinction of taste and flavor. Take a bite without using your sense of smell, and you may find the dish to be rather unappetizing. There’s a reason why food doesn’t “taste” as good when you have a cold!