The intricate blend of taste and smell is key to our enjoyment of food

2013-11-21 00:00

THERE’S nothing quite like the smell of coffee brewing, or freshly baked bread hot out of the oven. What we choose to eat is very often determined by what smells good and what tastes appealing. The senses of smell and taste have a close relationship and are both key to our enjoyment of food.

Our taste buds are the “organs” of taste, with each taste bud containing 50 to 100 taste receptor cells. When the food or drink that we are consuming mixes with saliva, unique nerve cells in the mouth, nose and throat are stimulated and the intricate process of smelling and tasting begins. Two particular types of nerve cells send messages to the brain and we are able to distinguish specific flavours.

• Olfactory (smell) nerve cells are stimulated by the odours around us, for example the fragrance of a rose, freshly baked muffins or burning toast. These nerve cells are found in a tiny patch of tissue high up in the nose, and they connect directly to the brain.

• Gustatory (taste) nerve cells are clustered in the taste buds of the mouth and throat. These cells send taste information to nearby nerve fibres, which transmit messages to the brain.

Taste and smell cells are the only cells in the nervous system that are replaced when they become old or damaged. Taste buds are also replaced every three weeks, which means we can learn to enjoy less salt and sugar added to our food.

Taste buds are able to identify five main tastes; namely, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savoury). These basic tastes are simply the first piece of the complex puzzle. Texture, temperature, and odour are the other puzzle pieces that fit together producing flavour and enabling us to identify what we are eating. Touch and pain receptors in our mouths and throats are able to sense the texture of a food. Temperature receptors are able to add the information of whether the food is cool (such as menthol) or hot (such as chilli peppers).

Many flavours are recognised through the sense of smell. Try holding your nose the next time you eat chocolate. You will find it difficult to identify which flavour the chocolate is, even though you will be able to distinguish its sweetness or bitterness. This is because the familiar flavour of chocolate is sensed largely by smell. The same goes for the well-known and loved flavour of coffee. To be honest, I enjoy the rich aroma of brewing coffee far more than its taste. The scientifically correct way to savour a flavour is to exhale through your nose after swallowing each mouthful. You may notice expert chefs doing this while testing their cooking.

Last time, we explored the fact that many of our taste preferences are genetically determined, particularly that of bitter foods such as vegetables. Additionally, there is great variance in the number of taste buds and taste receptor cells in each individual. Taste buds can contain between 50 to 100 taste receptor cells, and individuals may have from 2 000 to 5 000 taste buds. This great variance may explain why certain people have a heightened sense of taste, and others not.

A number of studies have been conducted to assess the impact of our tasting ability on nutritional status and food intake. It seems that individuals who do not have a strong sense of taste and smell are more likely to overeat and show less dietary restraint. Conversely, those who have a heightened taste ability tend to eat less.

At your next meal, try consciously to identify all the different tastes, textures and flavours. By eating each mouthful more mindfully, we will no doubt enjoy our food more while being as satisfied with a smaller portion.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting

dietitian. She can be reached at

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.