On a beautiful sunny day in March we were invited to bring a touch of science to a community event at Sewerby Hall – a spectacular Georgian country house on the historic Yorkshire coastline. Imogen Ramsey, a PhD brewing and sensory science student from the University of Nottingham, relives our flavour science intervention.

Artist Ahilapalapa Rands outside Sewerby Hall

The event was part of the launch of the stunning Sewerby community cookbook project, curated by Invisible Dust and produced by artist Ahilapalapa Rands. The cookbook contains unusual recipes (such as 300 pickled walnuts) inspired from the local areas and further afield.

We welcomed the audience by handing them a sealed lunch bag filled with exciting samples to tantalise their taste buds, but made sure that they didn’t peek inside until our surprise event commenced! There were a lot of confused faces and exclaims of ‘what’s all this about?’ heard around the room… So why were we here? Well, we asked the audience which sense they thought was the most important when eating food. The answer – taste. But would they all still think so after we really explored the science of flavour?

Activity 1: Smelly Beans

To whet the appetite, our first activity instructed the audience to hunt through their lunch bags and find some magic beans. We asked if they could identify the flavours by smell or taste alone, and the resounding verdict was no, but why is this? Taste and smell work together to create flavour, so as you chew your food air is forced up through your nasal passages, carrying the smell with it. This is why food never tastes as good as normal when you have a cold!

Activity 2: Juicy Illusion

Next we offered our guests a selection of coloured juices to taste – little did they know that this was a stealth science experiment! We asked if they could guess what flavours they were and share their favourite. This sparked a lot of debate in the room – some knew for definite what the liquids were, while others weren’t quite so sure.

So what was actually going on here? Well many fell victim to our cunning plan, and judged the taste of the juices by the way they looked – some even thought that the same exact drink in two colours was different! But they shouldn’t be embarrassed – a similar result occurred with wine experts when they were given a white wine with red food colouring added – they actually started describing the dyed white wine as a ‘jammy’ red. This shows that sight influences the way we taste food too.

Activity 3: Frequency of Flavour

To finish, the audience’s tongues were fed with varied treats and their ears were starved with earplugs. We asked if hearing affected the taste? No one responded – but then we realised everyone still had their ears blocked! Once we’d figured that out, we explained that people’s perceptions of the texture of foods changes according to the sounds they hear while eating.

So is taste really the only sense we use when we are eating?

We pondered this final thought with the audience – and there were a lot of shaking heads around the room. Together we had discovered that flavour is actually multisensory – smell, sight and sound also influence the way that we experience food.