February 9, 2023
Common Food Additives

The Link Between Taste and Memory

Food memories

We all seem to become nostalgic while remembering the food we used to love as a child, a particular food which you used to crave as a child or some foods that you didn’t seem to like at all. Most of us are able to recall those food memories, that smell, that texture of food and its extraordinary taste. Particular foods can trigger your childhood memories including candies, chocolates, grandma’s pancakes. But did you ever thought that how this happens or is there any link between taste and memory?

The true science behind taste and smell

Those dishes which your mom or grandma used to make still have the ability to take you back to the past and connect you to those memorable experiences. We have an organ in our brain that links those flavors to our memory. While we can say that eating is an experience but it’s our these two senses, taste and smell that play a vital role to make this experience memorable. The taste and the smell are those senses that first react to the chemical contained in our food or drinks to which the oronasal cavities (oral and nasal) are directly linked. When these senses work in tandem to recognize the chemical, it creates that memorable experience which we can call the “flavor.” Flavor manufacturers and flavorists are always on the lookout to ignite these senses to create that mouthfeel experience.

A few years back, a study was conducted by a few scientists to establish a link between taste and smell. A group of scientists surveyed approximately 93 adults and told them to recall their memories with any of the 3 cues: word, odor or a picture. This conclusion of this study was that the majority of these adults had a very strong recollection to their childhood times when associated with particular odors. Very few of these peoples attributed memories to sounds and sights. This study revealed that the memories, when associated with the sense of taste and smell during childhood play a vital role in determining our food habits, in our liking or disliking of particular foods in our adulthood.

Similarly, an experiment was carried out to use food memories on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of giving those patients bland food from the hospital cafeteria, these demented patients were provided with particular food which was popular during their childhood or teens days. The researchers are trying to use the same strong food memories that link our sense of taste and smell. The research is still in progress but the initial results are very positive and progressive. They are very hopeful that food can definitely help patients who are suffering from memory loss issues.

Whenever you eat something like cake or cookies, the numerous taste buds that are there on your tongue gather information from those chemicals which make up the food you are consuming. Each and every taste bud is made up of approximately 50-100 cells, named gustatory receptor cells. Whenever these gustatory receptor cells are activated, they transmit signals to a particular area of our brain. This organ is known as insular cortex or the gustatory cortex and it’s this organ that makes us aware of the perception of taste.

Our taste buds can distinguish five basic tastes, such as sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. These are the five most basic but crucial elements that make us understand or differentiate various flavors. But eating would never be pleasant even with these five basic tastes if we didn’t have the ability to smell.

Our olfactory system (sense of smell) is made up of approximately 12 million smell receptors that are scattered throughout the entire nasal cavity. These smell receptors gather odor molecules and transmit electrical signals to a very minute structure present in our brain (olfactory bulb) to be recognized or processed. Our body has different kinds of smell receptors with each of these having the ability to identify various molecules. You might be surprised that a single particular smell or a particular flavor comprises different types of prudent smell molecules with the potential of millions of combinations. It can be said that with this combination of taste and smell, we can surely differentiate between the foods available in the supermarket and your mom’s or grandmother’s mouthwatering recipes.

In fact, a few chefs around the world are so convinced with this link that as an experiment, they have started serving dishes with aromatic or scent-enabled plates and cutlery.

Flavours from the past

Our ability to smell plays a major role in identifying the flavor and it is the sole reason that triggers our past food memories. Although the exact procedure behind these spontaneous memories is a bit mysterious, this appears to be associated with a particular location in our brain structure. The olfactory bulb and insular cortex are closely linked to an area that is hugely responsible for our emotional learning. These organs are such an important part of our memory and emotions that, if damaged, can reduce our capacity to smell.

During our early evolutionary period, the food which was mostly consumed consisted of meat, herbs, roots, fruits and vegetables. Due to the lack of knowledge, they might have come across poisonous foods during their hunt or search. But the memory in our brain has the capacity to diminish this risk by storing those bad past memories. You might have noticed that if you fell sick right after having a certain type of food, then its highly possible that this flavor might make you feel nauseous if you try eating it again. This kind of feeling is called food aversion. Your brain will keep on alerting you whenever you come across this particular food for years, thus reducing the likelihood of you making this same mistake again. 

These adaptations to foods or survival techniques have increased our ability to enjoy and memorize our food, with our brain being able to recall both good and bad memories that are associated with our food.

The nostalgia that is associated with memorable experiences during our childhood plays an important role in reinforcing the idea that our food simply doesn’t need to taste good, but it should feel good too.

Written by
Richard Wilson
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Written by Richard Wilson