What Is the Difference Between Taste and Flavor? Ask Paul

Are flavor and taste the same thing? Hardly.

Published Mar. 29, 2023.

What Is Taste?

The words are often used interchangeably: Taste. Flavor. Flavorful food. Tasty snacks. But in fact there’s a very useful distinction to be made between taste and flavor.

Taste is the familiar set of sensations we enjoy with our taste buds: sour taste from acidic foods, sweet taste from sugars and other sweeteners, salty, bitter, and umami. Every taste bud is covered with a variety of taste-receptor cells, and each receptor is specialized for a particular taste.

When you eat a salty food, for instance, the sodium in the food interacts with salty taste–receptor cells on your tongue, activating nerves that send the message “SALT” to your brain. Other receptors are geared to detect sourness, sweetness, bitterness, and umami.

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What Is Flavor?

Of course, when you take a bite of food, there’s a lot more to the sensation than simply categorizing it as salty or sweet. That’s because taste is only one component of flavor. A majority of flavor perception happens not on the tongue but in the nose. Not through the nostrils, though. 

Sniffing through your nose is a different experience entirely. What happens during eating is known as retronasal olfaction: During chewing, volatile aroma compounds from the food travel directly from the back of your mouth through the nasopharyngeal passage into your nasal cavity, where they stimulate olfactory receptors. This is how we tell the difference between apple and onion, raspberry and strawberry, cilantro and oregano. By one estimate, we can discern a trillion different aromas in this way. Take that, five basic tastes.

The simultaneous experience of taste and retronasal aroma is combined by the brain into a single perception, which we know as flavor.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions:


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