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I was about to write to a friend: "...but texture affects taste", when I stopped to wonder if this is in fact the case. After some research I'm still not sure of the answer.

Wikipedia's article on taste tells the expected tale of taste, discerning some Basic Tastes:

  • Bitterness
  • Saltiness
  • Sourness
  • Sweetness
  • Umami (since start of 20th century this is usually included)
  • Metallic (somewhat controversial still, used since 1950s)

Can these 6 "basic" tastes be influenced by the texture of food?

On a side note, I'm not sure about the following: when food experts speak of the "taste of food" do they mean "taste" in the sense of the 6 tastes mentioned above? Or do they use it in a broader sense? In the latter case, my question would probably be more accurately described as:

Does texture affect taste (in the broad sense, as the word's used by food experts)?

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Related to this question on boiling food (as claimed in answers a rolling boil may affect texture, which in turn may affect taste). –  Jeroen Oct 17 '12 at 15:05

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, there are two different meanings of taste, as you already mentioned. One is the salty-sweet-etc. multidimensional space of sensory perceptions felt with the mucous membranes of the mouth (many authors add astringency and pungency/hotness, which are not felt by the tastebuds themselves), and the other is the overall impression of the food. The overall impression includes also the aroma - citric acid and acetic acid in a solution at the same pH level are both equally sour, but you can tell them apart by aroma - and the texture. An example for the texture would be to try confectioner's sugar and pure rock candy - both are 100% sucrose, so have the same narrow-meaning-taste (sensory perception of sweetness), and both have the same aroma (provided they are produced from the same plant at the same degree of refinement, which is often the case with white sugar), but your overall feel of them (taste in the broader sense) will be entirely different due to the different texture.

Taste in the narrow sense can also be slightly different with different texture, due to the difference in availability of the taste-creating chemicals to the taste buds (and to the rest of the mucous membrane). The obvious difference comes with density. Cotton candy does not feel as overpoweringly sweet as the same volume of table sugar, because it is mostly air and doesn't trigger as many taste buds at once as the sugar. This is a difference in the strength of taste, not in the taste profile - cotton candy doesn't start tasting more-salty-than-sweet due to the different density, it just tastes less sweet.

Another thing which might happen to taste is that the structure which creates the different structure isolates some of the taste-causing molecules from the taste buds. I know from experience that this happens with aroma. Adding xanthan gum to food reduces its aroma, I assume that it traps the volatile molecules which would normally reach the olfactory sensory cells. But if it does reduce the taste too, it doesn't do so in the same proportion, as there is much more taste left than smell. If somebody knows for sure that it reduces the strength of taste too, I would like to see conclusive information on it; I only include it here as a hypothesis.

Summary, texture changes taste in both the narrow and broad sense. It does so more strongly for the broad sense, which is the one most people care for.

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Let us consider an item of food with a smooth surface. When in contact with saliva - or indeed any solvent, e.g. a sauce or cooking fluid, a certain amount of the tasty chemicals will be dissolved.

Let us consider the same item of food with a textured surface - most likely having a greater surface area than our example above. It would seem that a greater surface area would result in more dissolved tasty chemicals, resulting in a different taste.

So this straight-forward - and possibly over-simplistic - thought experiment leads me to suggest that yes, texture does affect taste.

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One could argue that the tongue can only process a certain amount of content, and that both textures could very well produce more than enough for a full flavor and thus have no bearing. (Not shooting your answer down, I just like making counter-points to people.) –  Orin MacGregor Oct 17 '12 at 12:36
    
@Orin - Point taken and understood. However, the mechanism I proposed simply suggests that a textured surface might release more flavoursome compounds compared to a smooth surface. –  Nicholas Oct 17 '12 at 19:11
    
@Orin: I took too long editing my earlier comment. Wanted to also say - good comment. –  Nicholas Oct 17 '12 at 19:20

If I understand this article correctly, and may sum it up: texture does affect our perception of taste, but not the taste itself (in the strictest chemical/biological sense involving the tongue).

Unfortunately, this article only pertains to the thickness of the food. But I think it would similarly apply to things like: grainy vs smooth, dry vs slimy, etc.

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