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It might be a dumb question to ask, but I find it confusing. Is the perception of taste additive?

Or to be more precise, can two tasty food items combine to give a more delicious product?

For me, this sounds logical. I believe that the sense of taste is due to some chemical reactions in our mouths, which in turn fire up our taste receptors to give some specific signals to the brain. So when two tasty foods combine, there would be more signals that are identified as 'Tasty' by the brain. That should give the food combination a stronger taste than its constituents.

But I found some contradicting examples.

  1. I like to drink tea and coffee. But once, when I accidentally mixed a cup of tea with coffee, it wasn't tasty at all.
  2. I have seen some specific 'COMBINATIONS' of foods that taste better than their constituents.

What does this mean? More likely, my understanding of taste perception is flawed. If it is, then what is the real working mechanism of taste?

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    $\begingroup$ What we think we are "tasting" is usually a combination of taste and smell. I assume you are asking about the broader experience which involves both? In that case it's pretty complicated. 1, 2, 3 If you like mixing things and you're asking only about taste by the tongue, then try eating anything citrus with a bit of miracle fruit! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Feb 8 '20 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe this would be a good question for cooking.stackexchange.com. $\endgroup$
    – Ivana
    Feb 10 '20 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ taste is itself a combination of smell and "taste" an apple and an onion taste the same without your sense of smell. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 25 at 20:32
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I would classify the neurological phenomenon of "taste" or "tastyness" as an emergent property (1), and therefore synergistic (i.e. not adequately explained simply by additive effects). For example, when something "tastes like chicken" that's a synergistic sensory pattern in your brain involving the specific ratios of the 5 basic tastes(2) on your tongue, along with your sense of smell, and the sensation of the food's texture in your mouth (is it moist, dry, viscus, etc). This helps explain why simply combining two tasty flavors (coffee+tea) does not necessarily yield something twice as tasty, and also why foods which might not be tasty on their own, can be tasty in the right combination (e.g. potatoes+onions+salt+oil+heat makes tasty hashbrowns, but none of those foods are especially tasty on their own).

Taste preference (tastyness) also involves a certain amount of neurological learning, which is partially why often people don't like the taste of something like coffee when they are young, but learn to enjoy it as they find it elicits a response from the reward centers of the brain.

In summary, "tastyness" is most likely an emergent and synergistic property of a system of complex sensory and neurological interactions, and not simply an additive.

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Long answer from a non-biologist.

I was dreaming about explaining coffee flavors as an n-dimensional space spanned by the discrete detectable flavors/aromas present in a cup. In this model, a single flavor state is comprised of one distinct association (e.g. "blueberries") and amplitude (e.g. "a lot" or "not at all"), which mechanistically must comprise a certain molecule and chemical state.

In this model, a fictional ground truth exists for a given cup, which would correspond with a delta distribution on the 1D projection of a single flavor. The perceived flavor is convolved with various aberrations: grind size distribution causing over/under extraction (sample-specific, an alteration of underlying chemical states); a smoker whose sensory apparatus are perturbed (detector-specific).

Getting to the point, from a chemical sensing perspective, it seems that you could treat flavor as additive if the discrete molecules comprising it are non-interacting. That's at least two fold: (1) no molecular interactions, e.g. chelation of a salt; and (2) no sensory interactions of chemical constituents underpinning a flavor.

At least one common case in cooking comes immediately to mind: a pinch of salt heightens the perceived sweetness of a recipe, which would invalidate clause 2 above.

Summing up, it seems the answer is non-trivial. Perhaps the underlying molecular/chemical states are additive, but our human sensory apparatus is severely non-linear in its detection scheme.

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    $\begingroup$ The last sentence is the correct interpretation. Nerve density is different for different receptors and senses over different parts of our body. I'm not a neruro guy, but I would hazard a guess that we have more receptors for salt and sugar than we do for say bitter as we need salt, but can survive some bitter or short term exposure to a lot of bitter toxins. $\endgroup$
    – bob1
    Jul 25 at 21:15

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