Above: Image © Sergey Kashkin, iStockphoto

Think of some foods that taste really good together. What did you come up with? Peanut butter and jam, cheese and crackers, chocolate and strawberries? Some foods just seem to have flavours that go well together. Ever wonder why?

Did you know? A molecule called carvone is responsible for the flavours of both spearmint and caraway seeds. The molecule that smells of spearmint is a mirror image of the molecule that smells of caraway seeds.

Taste and smell

You might think that flavour is just a matter of taste. But have you ever noticed that food loses its flavour when you have a cold? Flavour is actually a combination of taste and smell. The flavour of food changes when you have a cold because you can’t smell.

You don’t even have to be sick to experience this effect. Try eating a piece of fruit while holding your nose. Now, let go of your nose. Did you notice a difference?

Figure 1. Some examples of ester flavour molecules (shown in red) in different fruit. Many other flavour molecules combine with these esters to give each fruit its unique flavour. Esters are molecules made up of oxygen (O), carbon (C), and hydrogen (H). An ester must contain a carbon atom with one single bond to an oxygen atom, and a double bond to a second oxygen atom. This unit is bonded to chains of carbon atoms.

Volatile compounds

Some foods have smells because they contain molecules that are volatile. This means that the molecules can escape from food in gas form and travel up to your nose so that you can smell them. These flavour molecules are grouped together based on the similarities in their structures.

For example, a type of molecule called esters (Figure 1) often have fruity smells. Another group of molecules, called alcohols (Figure 2), give strawberries and peppermint their distinctive odours. There are many other types of flavour molecules that all combine to give different foods their distinctive smells—and flavours.

Figure 2.Two examples of alcohol molecules (shown in red). Alcohol molecules contain carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O). They must contain an oxygen atom singly bonded to a hydrogen atom, and this pair of atoms is bonded to a carbon atom.

Flavour-pairing hypothesis

Avatar for Watson, the IBM supercomputer. Watson’s interests include food pairings and playing Jeopardy! (image © IBM)

There are no rules to predict whether a certain flavour combination will be delicious or disgusting. However, flavour chemist François Benzi and British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal have developed a flavour-pairing hypothesis. They propose that foods that have flavour molecules in common will taste good together.

This hypothesis has lead to new dishes with unusual flavour pairings such as pork liver and jasmine flower, which have a flavour molecule called indole in common. It’s not so surprising that dark chocolate and blue cheese make for a delicious combination in chocolate-cheese truffles, once you know that they have at least 73 flavour molecules in common!

IBM is using its supercomputer Watson to help chefs develop new recipes and publish a cookbook partly based on the flavour-pairing hypothesis. Watson has helped chefs develop unique new recipes such as Creole shrimp-lamb dumplings and Austrian chocolate burritos.

A study of over 50,000 online recipes found that North American and Western European recipes generally followed the flavour-pairing hypothesis, at least more often than would be expected by chance. But East Asian recipes actually avoid combining ingredients that contain the same flavour molecules. So the flavour-pairing hypothesis is not the only approach to developing great flavour combinations.

Did you know? Dogs have such a keen sense of smell that scientists are studying whether they can be trained to smell cancer in humans. An initial study showed that trained dogs can detect prostate cancer in 93% of cases.

Now that you know a little about one theory of what makes for delicious flavour pairings, why not try and invent some new flavour pairings yourself? IBM has developed a Chef Watson app that you can use to make your own new recipes. It can help you use the flavour pairing hypothesis to discover new flavour combinations!

Learn More!

About flavour pairing in general:

The Flavor Connection (2013)
Scientific American

Flavor network and the principles of food pairing (2011)
Y.Y. Ahn, S.E. Ahnert, J.P. Bagrow & A.L. Barabási, Scientific Reports 1

Flavor pairing (2010)
M. Lersch, Khymos

About specific dishes and ingredients:

Chocolate and Cheese (2012)
Edyta Zielinska, The Scientist

Why does salt make food taste better? (2012)
Stan Megraw, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

The Sweet Smell of Chocolate: Sweat, Cabbage and Beef (2011)
Carrie Arnold, Scientific American

Edwin W. Y. Wong

I was born and raised in Winnipeg, MB. I moved to Burnaby, BC to study chemistry at Simon Fraser University (SFU). I received my undergraduate degree there in 2006 and a PhD at the same institution in 2012. During my PhD, I studied phthalocyanines, which is the compound that makes blue ink blue, but they also have many other uses. For example, they are found in the sensors of photocopiers and can be used for treating skin cancer. I volunteered regularly with a science outreach program that was run by volunteers in the Department of Chemistry at SFU.

I moved to Melbourne, Australia after defending my PhD thesis to study main group compounds (these are the elements on the right of the periodic table) at Monash University. My volunteer work with Let's Talk Science began when I moved back to Canada to do research at McMaster University in Hamilton. In my spare time, I enjoy photography and baking, which is just another form of chemistry!

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