Humans’ senses of taste and smell are inextricably linked. That’s why food doesn’t taste as good when you have a cold. A lot of what we perceive as taste actually comes from the olfactory receptors in our noses. Smell is particularly fundamental when it comes to sweetness, according to researchers at the University of Florida.
A fruit's volatile chemical compounds, the source of its aromas, are more responsible for its sweetness than its sugar content, taste scientist Linda Bartoshuk tells the BBC. In a study of tomatoes, for instance, her team identified seven aromatic chemicals that contributed most to perceptions of sweetness. In taste tests, tomato varieties with more of these chemical compounds were rated as sweeter by participants, even when their sugar content was lower than other varieties.
Bartoshuk has also studied strawberries and blueberries, which present something of a sweetness conundrum if you measure their sugar content. Strawberries taste sweeter to most people, but have much less sugar. Bartoshuk and her research colleagues found that this is because strawberries have around 30 volatile compounds enhancing their sweetness, compared to only three in blueberries.
These volatile compounds are not present in concentrated enough amounts to emit a perceptible aroma, but they still contribute to the sensation of taste. It’s still not clear exactly how the brain is processing the information, but smelly chemicals are definitely playing a bigger role in our food than we thought.