Check out the highlights from our featured session on the culture, science, art and tech behind the experience of eating

At this year’s South By Southwest Online conference, experts from across the food and science landscapes came together to answer a question that matters to anyone who eats: what is taste?

Led by moderator Ben Pook, cofounder of SoVegan, the panel explored the cultural, scientific and emotional elements that influence our perception of taste, and what they mean for the future of plant-based foods. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned in conversation with Ben, our CEO Jonathan McIntyre, neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Herz and three-Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn.

The science behind our perception of taste

In Dr. Herz’s opinion, the biggest misconception about taste is that it all comes from the tongue. “Most of it is coming from your nose,” she said. 

While there are many factors that influence our perception of taste, Dr. Herz explained the most basic definition at a neuroscientific level: Taste stems from how the brain knits together salty, sweet, sour and bitter flavor receptors with aromas entering your nose as you eat. 

"If you couldn’t smell bacon, it would just taste like salt," she said. “If you had an apple and potato but couldn’t smell, you wouldn’t know what you’re eating with your eyes closed.”

"If you couldn’t smell bacon, it would just taste like salt."

-Dr. Rachel Herz

Motif FoodWorks CEO Jonathan McIntyre offered the food science perspective, highlighting the research our company is doing to better understand the science behind how food is both constructed and enjoyed on a physical level. By analyzing how the act of chewing and eating impacts how we perceive taste, scientists can unlock food’s secrets and create new solutions to the biggest problems in food design. This work is crucial to the development of better-tasting plant-based foods that appeal to omnivores and “flexitarians,” in addition to vegans and vegetarians.

“More people eating plant-based food is good for the planet,” McIntyre said. “But the products have to taste better if we want to drive adoption with mainstream consumers who aren’t satisfied with the taste and texture of current plant-based meat and dairy products.”

How geography and culture impact taste 

Chef Dominique Crenn, co-owner of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, talked about how a combination of her upbringing in France and exposure to other cultures influenced the flavor journeys that are now the backbone of her ever-evolving menu. 

“Traveling and getting new experiences help us tell a new story at Atelier Crenn,” she said. “What I’ve learned is that taste is different for everyone, and when you open yourself up to different cultures, you also welcome diversity into your food.”

Pook noted how the global nature of the SoVegan community influences the recipes he develops with his partner Roxy. “Our community exists solely online, so we take inspiration from all over the world,” he said. “Our perception of taste is constantly changing, and the next generation of foodies being influenced online is not held back by what we can go out and see around us.”  

The memory, history, and emotion of taste Dr. Herz highlighted the connection between food and emotion, including why we like and dislike certain foods. “Eating is very emotional, but what we like is fundamentally learned,” she said. “We have a primary attraction to comfort foods and cultural foods, but we can always learn about new food experiences not just from the taste perspective, but also from the emotional and social experience of eating.”

“What I’ve learned is that taste is different for everyone, and when you open yourself up to different cultures, you also welcome diversity into your food.”

-Chef Dominique Crenn

Comfort food in particular can elicit a strong emotional response when tied to a memory, and can feel like a “warm hug from the past,” when you eat a meal that was previously served to you by people you love. The ingredients in comfort food also play a role: salt, carbs and sugar activate the reward and pleasure centers in our brains. 

When Chef Crenn first opened her restaurant, she tapped into her own history to create a shared experience with her customers through food. Inspired by childhood nature walks with her father and brother, she developed a dish called A Walk in the Forest, layering in the flavors, visuals and textures of ingredients like wild mushrooms and berries. The goal was to transport the eater to the time and place she had in mind, even if they knew nothing about her childhood. “By creating a dish that connects people to their own childhood experiences, you invite people into your world,” she said.  

Emotional barriers can also create an aversion to trying new foods, which is why Motif’s team is developing  entirely new plant-based food forms in addition to improving plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. “Our learned experiences with food create a standard that you’ll always use to compare new tastes,” McIntyre said. “If we want to promote plant-based foods with mainstream consumers, we’ll also have to create new food experiences that can’t be compared.” 

The delicate balance between taste and nutrition

Many consumers are concerned about eating “healthier” foods, and some have turned to plant-based diets as a solution. McIntyre cautioned against a narrow view of what “healthy” means, and offered a reminder that we eat for more than nutrition alone.

“Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” he said. “Fries and beer are vegan. We should not forget that food serves multiple purposes: nutrition, but also, pleasure.” 

Dr. Herz commented on indulging in moderation and paying attention to where pleasure ends and something negative takes over. “When you want the indulgent taste of chocolate cake, at first bite you’ll feel amazing,” she said. “But by the fourth or fifth bite, you may no longer feel as good and need to ask yourself if it’s something you want to keep eating.” 

“If we want to promote plant-based foods with mainstream consumers, we’ll also have to create new food experiences that can’t be compared.”

–Jonathan McIntyre, CEO, Motif FoodWorks

Creating cravings

According to Dr. Herz, studies have shown that the food we crave is typically the food we eat often. That’s why in order to create a craving for new foods, we have to first create the idea of wanting something new. 

For McIntyre, the biggest misconception about taste is that people’s preferences are set in stone. “People do change their preferences, but it’s a learned behavior that takes time,” he said. Visual cues in packaging design and plate presentation coupled with the powerful aroma cue can help drive people toward craving new food experiences. As we’ve seen with soda drinkers finding full-sugar soda too sweet after switching to a new low-calorie formula, “we can get people to adapt to new tastes.”