Flavor Images and Meta-Flavors

In a recent post titled Flavor, Subjectivity, and Cultural Biases, I touched on how our brains perceive flavor, which is a multi-modal, mental-construct created by combining sensory data from multiple modes of sensing a food or drink.

One of the theories I've been kicking around in my head is that coffee is a meta-flavor consisting of several other flavors that combine to make what we all know as that wonderful "coffee" flavor. The reason I've thought of it as a meta-flavor is because our description of coffee always includes descriptions of other known foods and/or beverages. For example, chocolate and nutty flavors are common across nearly all coffees, just at varying degrees. Describing a given coffee as a "chocolate-bomb" gives the other person a good idea that the coffee has a pleasant sweetness, maybe even a bitter-sweetness, with hints of vanilla, maybe a smooth, milky, coating mouthfeel, etc.

One theory I'm re-reading about now is the theory that our brains create flavor images; mental constructs that represent or codify a particular flavor—a sort of short-hand for the complex flavor of, say a given coffee.

The volatiles are described in terms of the main notes (fruity, candy [sweet], banana), and secondary notes (cheesy, green, apple, pineapple, floral, chocolate, caramel, mushroom). Is this telling us there is a smell “image” for ripe banana that overlaps to some extent with the smell “images” for these other food objects?1

If we follow that theory, we begin at an early age building mental images of flavors based on the taste, smell, feel, and appearance of something and add to that image any significant emotional feelings tied to the experience and bundle all of that data into a short-hand image to be recalled later. As we expose ourselves to new flavors, we subconsciously check our mental database for any matching, pre-existing patterns or flavor images. If we have a pre-existing pattern or image in memory that matches a given flavor we are currently experiencing, we recall that image and associate it with the new flavor.

Most complex flavor perceptions are cerebral creations. They start from the detection of separate sensations, but it is their combined interactions that generate odor memories. Only the unique combinations of multiple sensations generate the typical fragrance of an object, be it wine, coffee, lilacs or fried bacon.2

In this way, all flavors may indeed be meta-flavors; flavors composed of or at least described by other flavors and as we continue to expose ourselves to new, as well as known flavors, the links between flavor images expand and reinforce each other.

The trick to successfully communicating with others about flavors is to find common experiences with flavor and then build on that to describe how the flavors interact and integrate to form holistic perceptions.


1. Shepherd, Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why iIt Matters, Columbia University Press; Reprint edition, 2011, p. 38
2. Wine Tasting, Second Edition: A Professional Handbook, Academic Press; 2 edition, 2009, p. 9

Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also exploring coffee production and how to improve the lives of those who produce the noble bean.