A new smartphone device can make a plain bowl of rice taste like curry, showing that scent and taste are intimately connected.
You may never need to suffer through a bland meal again. A new device transforms your smartphone into a scent machine that can make plain rice taste like meat … or corn soup or cinnamon rolls.
Dubbed Scentee, the device plugs into your phone’s headphone jack. With a tap of the associated app, it releases a spray of scent.
The video ad for Scentee claims that the device is perfect for cash-strapped college students surviving mainly on plain rice or noodles (why spend money on spices or vegetables when your app can provide the flavor?). It also purports to be perfect for first dates, providing a blast of jasmine or ylang ylang at just the right moment.
Several single-scent cartridges are available for Scentee—from soothing lavender and rose to appetite-stimulating coconut and curry. After your meal, you can also relax with a mug of warm water and a spray of coffee scent.
But Scentee is more than a short-lived fad for your smartphone. It’s a perfect, if strange, demonstration of the fact that the flavor of food is based on information our brains receive from both our mouths and noses.
For many people, taste and flavor mean the same thing. But that’s not exactly true. A strawberry may taste sweet, but it has the flavor of strawberry.
Not convinced? Chew a strawberry-flavored jelly bean while holding your nose. You will taste sweetness and maybe a little sourness, but no strawberry. When you let go of your nose, odor molecules from the jelly bean will enter your nasal cavity, providing that familiar strawberry flavor.
That’s because a large part of food flavor is determined by what cells in the nose (aka “smell cells”) detect. Information from these cells is relayed to the mouth (which is why you can sometimes “taste” strong smells like bleach), and added to the information picked up there.
In the mouth, taste buds located on the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and the back of the throat detect several basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory.
These pieces of information about the taste and scent of food are then combined and sent to the brain as “flavor.” Our sense of smell is so powerful that sometimes scent can override taste. This is why Scentee is able to trick your brain into thinking you’re eating an apple when all you have is a bowl of rice.
If scent is so important, why do we taste at all?
Taste is an important gatekeeper for eating. It helps us decide if we should swallow something that we are currently chewing. Foods that taste sweet are associated with quick sources of energy. Many poisonous substances taste bitter, which serves as a warning not to eat them.
The mouth is also essential for detecting non-taste sensations, like the temperature and texture of food. Together, our mouth and nose create the complex flavors that make eating so enjoyable.
As for Scentee, the device is a good way to transform an otherwise boring meal into something special.
You can also set the app to release a spray of scent whenever you receive an email or text notification. With enough blasts of lavender, messages from your boss may not seem so painful.