One Thousand Scents

Friday, November 20, 2009

In The Best of Taste

The newest issue of The New Yorker is all about food, and there's a big article about Givaudan, the company that makes not only many of the perfumes we all love but also many of the food additives that contribute to flavour. I am not providing a link to the article because I am not sure it will work for you: I have a subscription, and I may lead you to something you can't read. My advice is to Google "New Yorker Givaudan" and look for the November 29th, 2009, issue of the magazine. Here are a few relevant (relevant to my blog, anyway) excerpts to whet your appetite:

Smell is a more supple and primordial sense, and its centrality is evident in the way the human brain is arranged. Our forebrains evolved from tissues that once focussed on processing smells, and there are three hundred or so olfactory receptors in the nose....Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to a "pre-semantic" part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings. The smell of rotten meat can trigger sudden revulsion in a way that merely looking at it cannot.

"Our forebrains evolved from tissues that once focussed on processing smells." Isn't that astonishing? No wonder smell is such an immediate, vivid sense; there's a whole chunk of our brain that used to do nothing but endlessly calculate the meaning and value of it. Not only that: the olfactory sensory neurons, which detect odours, are basically brain cells exposed to the world (but protected by a mucus that contains antibodies to keep you from getting a fatal brain infection).

...[C]ontrolled experiments show that, no matter what a person's professional vocabulary or expertise, aromas remain a blur: the average person, with minimal training, can perceive about three or four distinct components in a given aroma; professional flavorists--without leaning on their chemical knowledge of particular types of food--can do no better.

Now, doesn't that make you feel better? You may not be able to olfactorily fractionate the latest Hermessence or Serge Lutens, but neither can anyone else!

Even the most familiar products can bewilder us. Coca-Cola, for instance, is primarily a citrus beverage, its flavor derived from lemon, orange, and lime oils, combined with vanilla, cinnamon, other spices, and corn syrup. Its flavor has little in common with the astringent-tasting kola nut, from which it takes its name, and its caramel coloring is largely imposed. For many people, describing Coke's flavor as a combination of different parts is nearly impossible. (In one study, two-thirds of the subjects could not tell the difference between Classic Coke and Diet Coke.) If you close your eyes, inhale deeply, and try to pay close attention to the volatile chemistry of Coke, it is possible to pick out a few basic elements, but for the average consumer the flavor is "cognitively impenetrable." That is, if you ask someone "What does Coke taste like?" the answer will be tautological: "It tastes like Coke." This presents a conundrum that many flavorists try not to think about.

"Cognitively impenetrable." I like that! More than a few perfumes are cognitively impenetrable. Chanel No. 5 is; it smells only of itself, as does yesterday's Wrappings, which, now that I think about it, is like a hyper-version of No. 5, with a dollop of oakmoss and the aldehydes delightfully amped up to unthinkable, almost cartoonish levels.

(Those very smart bottles up there, by the way, are a test run of eight-and-a-half-ounce aluminum bottles of Coke products. They aren't in wide circulation (yet), but we encountered them in New York last week. Being huge Diet Coke-heads, we each bought a silvery bottle to keep, and are kicking ourselves that we didn't get the other ones, too. They're surprisingly attractive.)

If you can find the whole article online, it's worth your time. If not, check out your local library or newsstand. Or subscribe to the online version: you get the full archives, the entire history of The New Yorker, for maybe $40 a year. Worth it.

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