How do we experience flavour?

Three senses work together to enable you to experience flavour – taste, smell and touch.

The sense of taste

Taste is experienced when food or drink, mixed with saliva, reaches tastebuds located all over the tongue and inside the mouth. Tastebuds detect five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury (umami). These tastes are the building blocks of flavour, and they combine with the senses of smell and touch to give rise to many flavours.

The sense of smell

Smell is experienced when odour particles are detected in the air and enter the nose either through the nostrils or the mouth. Chewing and swallowing food can release aromas that travel through the back of the mouth and up into the nasal passage.

The sense of touch 

The feeling of food in the mouth, or on the tongue, is important in the enjoyment of eating. During cancer treatment, food can feel ‘rough’ or ‘claggy’ and is sometimes described as ‘tasting like cardboard’.

Because they are so closely linked with taste, problems with the senses of smell or touch can be mistaken as a taste problem. This can be confusing and make the actual problem difficult to identify and treat. For example, a dry mouth or an offensive odour experienced in the mouth could be incorrectly described as a problem with the tastebuds.

This information was last reviewed in February 2015
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