How the scent of sugar can aid reduction

A growing body of research showing how closely taste and smell are linked offers an alternative route to reformulation.

14 November 2019

Earlier this year, research carried out in the United States revealed that the receptors that detect odours in the nose are also present in taste cells on the tongue. The scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia suggested their findings could “lead to the development of odour-based taste modifiers that can help combat the excess salt, sugar and fat intake." 

While this study adds new insight into the ways that taste and smell are intertwined, several companies have already been experimenting with ways to make products healthier through aroma-based prompts.

“If you have something that smells of something that you associate with sweetness, then overall the flavour will be sweeter, and you get a physiological response that detects that as being sweeter,” explains Charlotte Cantignani, research and development manager at flavour and ingredient manufacturer Treatt. “It’s not an illusion, it’s not a psychological trick, it is a physiological response. And that mechanism is called olfactory referral.”

Sweet smell of success

Most people, according to Cantignani, do not realise that sugar has its own scent and flavour besides the sensation of sweetness. At Treatt, they have capitalised on this knowledge to develop two products: Sugar Treattarome and TreattSweet. While the former is made from sugar and the latter combines other sweet raw materials into different blends, both are created using a similar method.

Using its proprietary distillation process, Treatt strips out the aroma from sugar, using it to create a colourless, water-based solution.

“It doesn’t have any molecules of sucrose in it, but it does smell like sugar,” adds Cantignani.

Boasting a clean label, Treatt’s products are designed to work in conjunction with sweeteners, counteracting some of the bitterness these sugar alternatives can add to the flavour.

Demand primarily comes from the beverage industry, specifically soft drinks, though Treatt’s solutions have also been used in dairy, brewery and sauces as well.

However, this is just one way to use the wider neurological system called ‘cross-modal correspondence,’ which encompasses how the different senses affect one another. In one well-known experiment, Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, showed how the sound of a Pringles crisp crunching could influence the taste perception of the crisp’s freshness.

Earlier this year, Spence talked about a similar study he had conducted that showed how different music could influence the sensory perceptions of a meal – which, again, could be used to influence how much salt or sugar people consume, as a high or low pitch can enhance the perception of saltiness or sweetness. 

Coffee break

Cantignani is not only the R&D manager at Treatt, she’s also the category manager for health and wellness. As part of this role, she has her eye on potential opportunities for flavourings in the plant-based and low to no alcohol categories.

However, her primary focus remains on sugar reduction and reformulation, which she will be speaking about at Food Matters Live next week on November 19.

Meanwhile, at the Treatt stand (A12) at the show, the team will be launching their coffee extract – a product that has already proved popular in the US, where ready-to-drink coffee and tea are big.

“Britain is a bit behind the curve in the ready-to-drink tea, but the rest of Europe are certainly more open minded, and the demand is much greater,” says Cantignani. “Ready-to-drink coffee, I think, could potentially get quite big as well.”

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