Episode 007 - How Flavor Works

In this episode, I drop by Gettysburg College, my undergraduate Alma Mater, to catch up with Professor Dan McCall of the Gettysburg Odor and Flavor Lab, who’s doing really interesting research in the field of taste and smell perception. As you’d imagine, he’s got a lot of really cool insights into exactly what happens when you take that first sip of your favorite cocktail.  

Some of the topics we discuss include:

  • The evolutionary bases for smell and taste
  • The brain structures and psychological mechanisms responsible for flavor perception
  • Cocktails as a psychological playground for flavor decision making
  • Cultural flavor preferences in France and the U.S.
  • The magic of blackcurrants
  • And Much, Much More

If you liked my interview with Colleen O’Bryant, where we talked about herbs and seasonal flavors, then I have a feeling that this episode is also going to be in your wheelhouse. And while you’re listening, don’t get intimidated if you hear a few psychological terms--Dan always does a good job of breaking down complex things like brain structures and sensory pathways into their most basic, easy-to-understand form.

This conversation is a true treat for your brain, so settle in and enjoy my conversation with Professor Dan McCall.

Want to get in touch? Email him at dmccall@gettysburg.edu

A Couple Cocktails We Discuss

The Aperol/Campari Spritz

A Venetian cocktail invented under the influence of Austrian occupation.

  • 3 oz Prosecco
  • 2 oz Aperol or Campari (bitter liqueurs)
  • Top with splash of soda water
  • Garnish with orange slice or peel

The Kir (& Kir Royale)

A French cocktail named after a famous mayor of Dijon (a city in Central France). The cocktail contains creme de cassis, which is a liqueur made from blackcurrants.

  • 3-4 oz Dry white or sparkling wine
  • ½ oz Creme de Cassis
  • Combine ingredients in a wine glass or flute and enjoy chilled

Some Vocab Terms We Drop in this Episode

  • Olfaction/Olfactory - Refers to the human sense of smell and how our noses and our brains work together to process odors and flavors in the environment.
  • Sensory Modality - A fancy way of referring to any one of the five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing).
  • Retronasal - The smell perception pathway that begins at the back of the mouth and carries smell molecules activated by chewing up the back of the throat to the smell receptors deep in the nose.
  • Orthonasal - The smell perception pathway that starts at the nostrils and moves airborne smell molecules up through the nose to the smell receptors.
  • The Proust Effect - A situation in which a smell or a flavor can activate a strong autobiographical memory in the person who perceives it. This effect was famously described by the French author Marcel Proust, who wrote of such a memory being triggered by the smell of baking madeleine pastries.
  • Flavor Aversions - Individual negative reactions we have to certain flavors, often triggered by a particularly bad (or “aversive”) experience in which that flavor was associated with severe discomfort or pain. These aversions can by non-rational and last a lifetime. 
  • Benign Masochism - The idea that we like certain painful experiences (like bitter or spicy tastes), but only when we know that we can engage in them without serious or permanent harm.
  • Cross-Modal Correspondences - When perceptual tendencies from one modality, like vision, affect our perception of characteristics in another modality, like flavor. (e.g. when the color of a beverage affects our flavor perception of that beverage).
  • Cassis - A French term for “Blackcurrant,” which is a tart, flavorful berry.