How Scientists are Creating Flavors With ‘Phantom Aromas’

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Food scientists are trying to trick your brain into tasting flavors that aren’t there—but they say it’s for your own good. In an attempt to combat the overconsumption of sodium and sugar, scientists are helping processed food companies develop "phantom aromas" that create the impression of sweetness or saltiness without the calories.

According to The Atlantic, salt and sugar consumption in the U.S. have increased dramatically in the last few decades, and the processed food industry is partly to blame. Consuming too much salt and sugar can cause real health problems, but when food companies try to reduce their salt and sugar content, people stop buying their products. So, what’s their solution? Get rid of the salt, but keep that salty smell.

Though the neuroscience of taste is still a relatively new field, scientists believe that separate receptors take in flavor and scent information, but that the information combines when it reaches the orbital frontal cortex in our brain. That means it can be exceedingly difficult for us to differentiate between scent and flavor information when we’re eating.

Phantom aromas mimic familiar aromas, such as ham for salty foods or vanillin for sweet foods. When we eat foods with phantom aromas, our brains automatically fill in the blanks, changing the way the food tastes to us. For instance, in one 2011 study published in the Journal of Food Science, researchers found that the scent of beef increased participants’ perception of salt in a low-sodium broth by 15 percent. 

It's hard to know how many companies are currently adding phantom aromas to their products. While some companies, like flavor manufacturer FONA International, publicly promote the use of artificial scents (their vice president of research and innovation, Robert Sobel, is the person who came up with the term "phantom aroma"), others are more secretive. Because scents can't usually be patented, it's often in companies' best interests to keep their phantom scents to themselves. However, The Atlantic notes, "Judging from its frequent appearances in industry journals, presentations, and white papers, the concept seems to be gathering steam."

But while phantom aromas may be a scientifically viable solution to America’s sodium problems, some argue that more artificial scents and flavors aren't the answer. “I don't want to sound like a luddite, but the vast bulk of our salt intake comes from salt added by food processors who have so corrupted America's tastebuds,” food and restaurant consultant Michael White told The Atlantic. White believes phantom aromas just add to a larger problem: the overuse of artificial flavorings in American cuisine.

[h/t: The Atlantic]