Phantom Aroma: Manipulating Taste of Food With Perceived Aromas

Oct 22, 2015 06:30 PM EDT | By Alexis Villarias

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Scientists and food companies are now experimenting with "phantom aromas" to trigger the brain to produce taste using smell tricks.  This lets you taste a flavour that doesn't exist.

As reported in the Atlantic, several food companies have attempted to reduce the amount of flavourings to appeal to health conscious consumers.  In 20017, Campbell Soup Company was reported to slash the salt content across its canned soups in an effort to be healthier.  But this move, however good the intentions are, has not produced the desired effect.  Rather, soup sales in 2011 had dropped and stock market shares were down by 5 percent.  Campbell then decided to bring back the salt to 650 milligrams.

In 2004, General Mills has made a move along the same lines as Campbell's.  It released reduced-sugar versions of its cereals and pulled out the cereals after three years due to low sales.  In 2014, sales of Sprite decrease as Coca-Cola decided to cut the drink's sugar by one-third.  In 2012, Mintel, a consumer-research firm, found out that low-sodium food items have declined by 5 percent due to low consumer demand.

"Existing salt replacements have not caught the imagination of consumers," the report said. "Consumers are concerned about salt intake, but are not willing to compromise on taste."

More so, both salt and sugar can act as preservatives and rising agents in processed food, thus the stubborn existence of these in our food.  However, some food scientists believe the solution may not involve the taste buds at all.  Robert Sobel, the vice president of research and innovation at the flavour company FONA International has been researching ways to use smell to manipulate our brains into thinking that food contains high levels of sugar and salt when in reality it doesn't.

Sobel was reported to come across the concept in 2009, in an article called "Taste, Aroma and Brain" in the magazine Perfumer and Flavorist.  Phantom aroma was inspired by the neuropsychological phenomenon called phantom limbs.  This is the process by which the brain fills in the perception of a certain taste even when the ingredient does not exist.

However, flavour substitute can mean chemicals and so, not everyone in the food industry is impressed with the concept of phantom aromas.  Meanwhile, proponents of this concept argue that the compounds does not have any negative implications. 

According to Karmella Hynes, synthetic vanillin has exactly the same chemical structures as natural vanillin.  "Chemical analysis of vanillin from yeast reveals no additional atoms [and] no alien side groups attached," she wrote. "And no tiny molecular boogie men that are prepared to pounce and kill the unsuspecting consumer."

Since the research is still new, the proponents are doing a lot of research as to its implications.  Admittedly, it could help reduce a lot of salt and sugar in our food and it's definitely a good thing.

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