How Smell and Taste Are Connected to Language
When we see a color we are quick to identify it. When we hear the first few notes of a song we know, instantly we start singing the song in our head. When we touch things we can identify a wide range of possible textures and temperatures and surfaces. So why is it when we eat or smell something we have a much harder time bringing the words to the surface and identifying what we are eating or smelling?
Our sense of smell has two sections, orthonasal and retronasal olfaction. Ortho is your external ability to sniff an aroma and perceive it through your nose. Retro is when you perceive aromas through the action of chewing where aroma molecules make their way up the back of the throat and into the nasal cavity. There are some people who have inhibited or completely absent orthonasal olfaction — where they can’t smell aromas. This tends to be a more commonly documented disorder, whereas retronasal inhibition or absence of ability is less documented and studied. There are cases in which people with absent orthonasal olfaction still retain their ability to perceive retronasal aromas while ingesting foodstuffs. This study on JAMA documents just such an occurrence. In this excerpt from a book on google about nasal disorders references how it can be both ways, externally muted or absent or internally muted or absent.
The contributing causation factors for either nasal issue is widely varied and highly speculative. Scientists in the field of research on this subject suspect that beyond inflammation issues (caused by allergies or other inflammatory disorders) various health issues, like cardiovascular disease and a whole array of other illnesses could contribute or outright cause the breakdown in the function of the nasal olfactory system. The problem is it’s not thoroughly explored by doctors, especially when someone is suffering with an illness, the ability to taste and smell is usually lower on the priority list of things that are wrong.
Another possible contributing factor is medications. This side effect is also not widely discussed or really considered even with the drug companies putting out the medications, but for any medications that possibly affect mucus membranes, especially with dry mouth as a side effect, could possibly contribute to altered or reduced retronasal olfaction.
If you are a vaper who has quit smoking more than six months ago and can still not taste much from your e-liquid, or things never taste as they are expected from the descriptions of the flavorings or mixed e-liquids, you’re problem may not stem from having been a smoker. Normal sense of smell and taste usually returns in most people by 6 months post quitting, so if you are still having issues, exploring other medical conditions or medications you are on may help you explain why your senses are dulled.
Like all things that are unique to each individual, the sense of smell is much like our fingerprints, each one is different, and generally on a scale ability ranging from barely there to extremely sensitive. The average amount of folks are going to fall in the middle with an average sense of smell, not super weak or super strong. This is the target taster that most commercial juices aim for. When you start mixing for yourself you may find other people’s recipes too strong or too weak for you, or you may wonder why some people love one recipe when to you it’s horrible. Where you fall on the scale of perception ability is usually the reason for these variations (barring a medical condition or medications.) This is where mixing to your own perception ability comes into play, something I will cover in another article.
Smell and Taste is connected to Memory and Emotion
Unlike our other senses our olfactory system is connected more to our memory and emotional centers of the brain than it is to the frontal lobe where our language centers are located. This difference in brain connection means our recollection of smells and tastes are usually deeply tied to specific memories and emotional states of those memories. This is why the scent of perfume an old love interest wore can trigger the memories, good or bad, of that relationship and it can dictate our emotional state towards the fragrance itself based on those memories. This connection often times dictates our likes and dislikes of certain tastes and smells. For people who were traumatized as children at the dinner table, forced to finish plates of food that were not the most kid friendly flavors, like Liver and Onions (one of the most hated foods in general) the smell of liver cooking or even anything that comes close to any of the flavors in the liver profile can cause that person an extreme aversion – an emotional recoiling – from anything reminding them of it.
This part of the senses is where our personal tastes come from, memories and emotions we felt while being connected to aromas, food textures, colors, and tastes. Since we are vaping and not getting the same textures and colors, our body only has the aromas and tastes to go off of when decoding the chemical input from the aroma molecules when they are sent through the retronasal bulbs and when the vapor comes in contact with our tongue and mouth.
Let’s take the most popular e-liquid fruit flavor as an example: Strawberry. When you eat a strawberry generally the first thought is to how ripe the strawberry tastes. Next is how sweet it is in our mouth, followed by juiciness, the texture of the fruit itself (also lending to ripeness determination) and those little bits of crunch as we chew up the pips (seeds.)
When eating a strawberry we aren’t examining the aroma qualities and paying attention that strongly to the taste sensations. We aren’t picking out the subtle floral array of the top notes in the strawberry. We aren’t identifying the jammy, aldehydic, deep berry notes. We aren’t noticing the slight tangy sensation on our tongue coupled with the sweetness of the fructose present in the strawberry. We aren’t noticing the creamy lactone notes that are actually in a real ripe strawberry. We aren’t picking out esters or acids or any of those other things — mostly because the majority of people don’t really know about aroma molecules and what they smell like — but, even if we do sometimes it’s easy to fall back into our usual pattern of “Mmm…yummy strawberry” as the description in our mind. I am guilty of doing this. It takes some serious focus to thoroughly taste and smell your food much like a wine taster goes through steps while tasting a wine.
In fact, eating a strawberry is likely to bring back brief memories of maybe our childhood, or summertime, or a cookout on the 4th of July or some other holiday when maybe we or another family member made strawberry shortcake, or fresh fruit platters or salads. We more than likely have positive memories of strawberries — one of the reasons it’s the most popular fruit vape. Maybe we love strawberry Nesquik in milk — and happy childhood memories are associated with it. Maybe we love cheesecake or ice cream covered in strawberries and syrup. All connected to various happy memories. Rather than fully tasting what we are taking in at the moment, our mind wanders back to those happy memories and we connect the smells and taste to that happy memory recalling the aroma and taste more so than actually tasting what is in front of us. It’s a fascinating process if you really pay attention to it.
This is how comfort food works to give us a sense of wellbeing. Those aromas and tastes and textures are connected to our deepest happy memories, when we were warm, safe, and happy, we have an extreme emotional connection to that flavor profile. These connections play a part in our personal flavor profile preferences in e-liquid. Flavor aromas that hit very close to the chemical imprint of a happy memory will ultimately be some of our favorite juices. Not to say we can’t develop a taste and love for new vaping liquid flavor profiles, because we can, but chemically familiar flavor profiles will always be our go to or comfort vapes due to the psychology of taste and smell.
Applying the Language of Flavor to E-Liquid
It’s easy now to see why it’s difficult to put words to chemical aroma perceptions, since we are wired to access memories and emotions in connection to these neurological signals over connecting to our language centers in the brain. It can also be understood as to why the claim that “Taste is Subjective” has played a big part in vaping. But we can train our perceptions just by paying closer attention as we eat foods we may want to model an e-liquid after, but also paying far closer attention to the flavorings we are using and applying some of the flavor language to the aroma sensations we can sense. This is where we can gain a more objective overview of flavorings beyond the subjective likes and dislikes of our memories and emotions.
If you are new to mixing your own e-liquids, or are even new to vaping, maybe you haven’t experienced very many flavorings yet. Maybe you’ve been mixing for a while but have stuck to a very limited range of flavorings based on popular recipes and commercial juice. Experiencing flavorings, as single flavors is part of the process of building your library of flavoring understanding and defining.
Recognizing flavor components in a finished e-liquid
Most mixers aren’t going to be working with individual molecules. However each flavor compound (the flavorings we are creating recipes with) could consist of anything from 5 molecules to 200+ molecules to make a singular compounded flavor. This means there could potentially be many overlapping molecules being doubled up or even many times over added to a single recipe due to the similar flavorings sharing similar molecules. A Coconut, Cream, Milk, Whipped Cream, Ice Cream and Custard blend is going to be loaded with the same molecules. This could contribute to muting of certain flavor notes when too much of one or more molecules is used. Though flavor muting is another article in itself that is to come in the next few weeks. Oversaturation of molecules is a good reason to use far lower percentages of similar flavors in order to not exceed the threshold of individual molecules.
In order to have a meaningful understanding of the flavor profile I need to find the words. Let’s take Cuttwoods Mega Melons as an example — because it’s a pretty straight forward type of recipe. My description using flavor language: Sweet (heavily), cantaloupe, cucumber, banana, strawberry, fruity, bubblegum, coconut, melon, fatty, fresh cut grass, papaya (with it’s tropical, apricot, banana, pineapple notes), mango (with it’s exotic fruity, side note spicy, waxy, with the hint of tangy metallic top note and floral notes.) I know this flavor is heavy on the exotic fruit notes, but also that bubblegum/banana/fruity/melon notes. I think what most of the clones are missing is a small amount of TFA Honeydew.
In an attempt that I was making to create a better version of this flavor, I made a version that was pretty much spot on for the original. The little bit of honeydew adds in more of that bubblegum note that I get from the TFA melon flavors that made it more on par with what Cuttwood had done. If I were going to mix this flavor I would replace the sweetener with Erythritol now, about 4% of it to equal the same amount of sweetness…or combine EM at 0.5% and 3% Erythritol. To me the recipes using Marshmallow make it too creamy and too thick. I was very familiar with the TFA flavors so I knew immediately upon smelling the bottle of the OG that it was TFA flavors.
When we’re looking to create a flavor profile from scratch or if we’re looking to build a clone juice, it is very helpful to speak the same language with as much detail as we can put into. In the example of Monster Melons, TFA Cantaloupe and Honeydew could technically be interchangeable with CAP’s versions, as they both are heavy in that banana, strawberry,apple, fruity note — that to me reminds me strongly of bubblegum — where as Flavourart’s Melon cantaloupe is not as heavy on that bubblegum note. FA’s version is far more fresh fruit, heavier on the cucumber melon notes and the green fresh cut grass notes, with just a hint of a few of the notes that make up watermelon as well. I actually prefer a version of this mix utilizing FA’s melons, adding in a small amount of FA watermelon, because I like more of a realistic fruit flavor.
Part 3 of this article series I will be exploring food tasting, sense training, and building a recipe from scratch using real word food examples and how to match them with flavor compounds, and ways to keep notes on the aromas you are sensing.