December 5, 2018

Cheesy Goodness: The Science of Taste and Temperature

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety

Have you ever wondered why cheese tastes stronger when it’s soft or melted? One reason has to do with your mouth: once a piece of cheddar on your cheeseburger has been heated to 150°F, the milk proteins break down, giving the cheese a creamy texture that people find more appealing than cold cheese, and that spreads the flavor more evenly and broadly across the tongue.

 

But more importantly, heat draws out and intensifies two of our primary tastes found in cheese: sour and umami (or savory). In fact, recent scientific studies have clearly shown how temperature – primarily heat – changes not only the flavor qualities of food, but the very sensitivity of our taste buds to detect those flavors.

 

Studies of Taste and Temperature

Three important scientific studies reported research that advances our understanding of the relationship of taste to temperature:

  • A group of scientists based in the Netherlands, using experimental vanilla custard, found that our sense of the dessert's creaminess depends on factors related to increases in temperature, especially viscosity and texture.
  • A 2005 paper published in the Journal of Sensory Studies found that the serving temperature of cheddar cheese affected how its taste was perceived. The cheese was served at 5°C, 12°C, and 21°C and sourness increased as the temperature rose.
  • A government study discovered in the same year that ice-cream gets sweeter when it starts to melt. Beer tastes more bitter as it gets warmer. Ham has more umami when heated.

 

Anatomy of Your Tongue

It makes sense that the temperature of food changes its taste. We typically make these discoveries in our kitchens and restaurants every day. But science has proven something even more remarkable and less obvious: heating or cooling certain parts of the tongue can create the illusion of certain tastes. Some of these effects occur because the taste receptor TRPM5 (which picks up sweet, bitter and umami tastes) sends a stronger electrical signal to the brain when food is warmer.

 

A study published in the journal Nature in 1999 found that the human gustatory (taste) system contains different types of temperature-sensitive neurons that contribute to our sense of taste. For example, warming the front edge of the tongue from a cold temperature can induce sweetness. The researchers concluded that these neurons form an everyday part of our sensory code for taste. It therefore follows that the temperature of what you drink while eating will also affect the food’s taste.

 

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For example, the Nature study found that eating immediately after drinking cold water decreased the perception of sweetness, chocolate flavor, and creaminess. This might explain why Americans prefer highly sweetened food. North Americans generally drink ice-cold water at mealtimes, whereas Europeans prefer room temperature beverages and Asians often drink hot tea. So, even cross-cultural cuisines may be influenced simply by the relationship between taste and temperature on the tongue.

 

Taste is Not Just Subjective

The available data clearly shows that temperature can be an important variable in flavor perception. However, its importance in real-world situations undoubtedly depends on numerous factors:

  • How extreme the thermal stimulus is
  • The kind of food being consumed
  • The concentration of taste compounds in the food
  • The physiological variations in taste sensitivity among individuals (e.g., a “super taster” vs a “normal taster”)
  • The psychological mind-set a taster brings to the situation

 

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