Interrelatedness of Taste and Smell
The nervous system helps an organism understand the environment around it and helps the organism respond and interact within its world. The most fundamental portion of the nervous system is its sensory system. This system consists of the five main senses—audition (hearing), gustation (taste), olfaction (smell), touch, and vision (sight). However, since foods and beverages provide calories and nutrients that are essential for survival, the senses of smell and taste are highly interrelated. In fact, this is how flavor is identified or perceived. For example, a person can determine if a strawberry is ripe by using only one sense: vision or touch. When you look at a strawberry, you can tell by its color if it is ripe—red in color—or not—green in color. Additionally, using only the sense of touch, if a strawberry is tender or gives when handled, it is another sign that the strawberry is ripe. However, we do not know what the strawberry’s flavor is or perceive its flavor without using both the sense of taste and the sense of smell.
Only using the sense of taste, the ripe strawberry will be sweet, but if it is unripe there is no taste. Only using the sense of smell, the ripe strawberry will smell sweet, but we cannot tell what its chemical signature truly is that makes “strawberry.” This is because a person who sniffs is using orthonasal olfaction. However, an individual who is eating and chewing is using retronasal olfaction where odors trapped in the food enter the nose via the pharynx. This is why food does not taste as flavorful when a person has a stuffy or runny nose from a head cold, flu, or sinusitis. Now, when you bite into the strawberry (with a clean nose), the flavor of strawberry is more complex; it is not just sweet. The strawberry’s tastants along with its odorants work together so that our brain perceives the uniqueness that makes a strawberry—which is different from a raspberry, blueberry, or cherry.
Jennifer L. Hellier
See also: Ageusia; Anosmia; Odor Intensity Scale; Odor Threshold; Olfactory System; Supertaster; Taste Aversion; Taste System
Finger, Thomas E., & Sue C. Kinnamon. (2011). Taste isn’t just for taste buds anymore. F1000 Biology Reports. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3169900/
Gire, David H., Diego Restrepo, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Charles Greer, Juan A. De Carlos, & Laura Lopez-Mascaraque. (2013). Temporal processing in the olfactory system: Can we see a smell? Neuron, 78(3), 416—432.
Society for Neuroscience. (2012). Senses and perception: Taste and smell. BrainFacts.org. Retrieved from http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/senses-and-perception/articles/2012/taste-and-smell/