Olfactory Dining

By Prof. Charles Spence

While estimates vary, the majority of researchers would nowadays appear to agree that smell contributes the majority of the sensory input when it comes to our experience and enjoyment while eating and drinking (Spence, 2015a). While the taste buds on the tongue provide information about the basic tastes (e.g., sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, metallic, fatty acid……and who knows, maybe a few more; Stuckey, 2012), it is the olfactory receptors in the nose that tell  us about fruity, meaty, floral, herbal, burnt aromas (Spence, 2015b). Ironically, most of the time we are unaware of just how much of the information is conveyed by the nose, due to the phenomenon of oral referral (Spence, 2015). This is where olfactory stimuli transduced at the nasal mucosa are referred to that we experience the information as if it were coming from the mouth – as if it were being sensed by the tongue (though whether we should think of this as an example of fusion, dominance, or confusion, researchers are not so sure). While for a century or so researchers believed that oral referral resulted from the tactile stimulation in the oral-cavity when we eat and drink (Hollingworth & Poffenberger, 1917), the latest research now shows that the strength of the oral referral depends on the congruency between smell and taste. The aroma of vanilla, say, will be mislocalized to the oral cavity far more often when there is a sweet tastant rather than a salty one (see Spence, in press, for a review).

While we now know more about the mechanisms underlying oral referral, it is clear that many of our contemporary food experiences are not optimized to deliver the best orthonasal aroma hit possible (Piqueras-Fiszman & Spence, 2015). Just think, for example, of all those plastic lids that are placed over Styrofoam cups of steaming hot coffee (Spence, 2015c). While they undoubtedly allow the consumer to drink the coffee without spilling it, what they singly fail to do is allow the consumer to appreciate the orthonasal aroma. Unfortunate, really, given that the smell of freshly-ground coffee is one of the most liked of smells. What can be done?

Well, here at Oxford University’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Department of Experimental Psychology, we work a lot with modernist chefs. It is clear that many of them, top chefs like Heston Blumenthal (of The Fat Duck), Chef Andoni (of Mugaritz in San Sebastian), Grant Achatz (of Alinea in Chicago), and Jozef Youssef (of Kitchen Theory; https://kitchen-theory.com/), are increasingly playing with the delivery of aromas in a range of new and innovative ways: Everything from aromatic cutlery and plateware, through atomized aroma sprayed over the dish tableside, and cloud pourer and dry ice diffusion (see Spence & Piqueras-Fiszman, 2014; Spence & Youssef, 2015, for a number of illustrative examples). Chef Andoni has even used the Scentee, a scent-enabled plug-in to allow diners who have made a booking at his 2 Michelin-starred restaurant download an app, and experience the action and aromas that accompany one of the dishes on the tasting menu (see Braun et al., 2016). If smell is indeed such an important part of what we taste then these innovations could certainly make sense, from the perspective of gastrophysics.

Where the modernist chefs lead, though, food and beverage manufacturers and culinary designers are never far behind. Interesting in this regard are those companies starting to deliver aroma to food through commercial packaging, glassware, and cutlery. So, for instance, in 2013, PepsiCo submitted a patent application for the use of encapsulated aroma in the opening of their products (Morran, 2013). Meanwhile, Molecule-R is one of the best known companies delivering flavour with every mouthful, with their aromatic forks (http://moleculargastronomy.com/). Finally, in April of this year, we should see the launch of the Drink Right cup (e.g., O’Hare, 2015). This glass drinking vessel contains an aromatic sleeve that gives off the aroma of apple orange, or lemon. The idea is that consumers can simply pour water into the cup and have a tasting experience that will approximate that one might have on actually drinking fruit juice, or at least fruit-flavoured water.

Now, I have yet to try the Right Cup, but my experience with the Aromafork is that unless one is very careful, the danger is that one has an experience that is synthetic. This is not to say that we can always distinguish synthetic from actual natural aroma, mostly we cannot (Rosenbaum, 1979; Shell, 1979). It is just that, for whatever reason, the aromas that are sold with these new devices tend to smell cheap and artificial. Just take the following quote from a blog to get the idea of someone who is using a basil-scented aromafork to augment the tomato and mozzarella salad: “This was reminiscent of a caprese salad, but like one of those caprese salads where the basil is a little weak. You know, just kind of anemic tasting … definitely not organic.” Furthermore, as soon as the consumer realizes that the aroma is not coming from the food or beverage, but from the cutlery or glassware, they may be primed to think synthetic/artificial. It is that believe, as much as the evidence before their senses, that will likely lead to reduced hedonic ratings, this despite the undoubted novelty of these interventions.

In closing, if one returns to the modernist chefs it is interesting to note how often the natural origins of their off-the-plate aromas are stressed. Be it the aroma released when hot water is poured over the hyacinths in which one’s bowl of food sits at Alinea, or Homaro Cantu’s use of fresh sprigs of herbs in the curly handles of his cutlery, at Moto, also in Chicago. Ultimately, I think, we will just have to wait and see how the consumer responds to this new world of olfactorily-enhanced food and beverage packaging. Will people one day crave such packaging solutions as much as they did the metallic taint that used to affect the perception of their tinned tomatoes (Rosenbaum, 1979)? The chances of such approaches succeeding in the long-term will obviously depend on companies being able to deliver quality aromas at a reasonable price. The chances of success might also be enhanced by the growing trend toward ‘Sensploration’ that has apparently gripped many high-end consumers recently (see Leow, 2015).


Braun, M. H., Pradana, G. A., Cheok, A. D., Buchanan, G., Velasco, C., Spence, C., &  Aduriz, A. L., Gross, J., & Lasa, D. (2016). Emotional priming of digital images through mobile tele-smell and virtual food. International Journal of Food Design1, 29-45.

Hollingworth, H. L., & Poffenberger, A. T. (1917). The sense of taste. New York, NY: Moffat Yard.

Leow, H. C. (2015). Never heard of Sensploration? Time to study up on epicure’s biggest high-end pattern. The Veox22nd December. Downloaded from http://www.theveox.com/never-heard-of-sensploration-time-to-study-up-on-epicures-biggest-high-end-pattern/ on 31/01/2016.

Morran, C. (2013). PepsiCo thinks its drinks aren’t smelly enough, wants to add scent capsules. ConsumeristSeptember 17th. Downloaded from http://consumerist.com/2013/09/17/pepsico-thinks-its-drinks-arent-smelly-enough-wants-to-add-scent-capsules/ on 24/07/2015.

O’Hare, R. (2015). The mind-bending beaker that tricks your brain into thinking water tastes like juice: £25 Right Cup uses fruity aromas to confuse the senses. DailyMail OnlineDecember 30th. Downloaded from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3378689/Mind-bending-beaker-tricks-brain-thinking-water-tastes-like-juice-25-Right-Cup-uses-fruity-aromas-confuse-senses.html on 08/02/2016.

Piqueras-Fiszman, B., & Spence, C. (2015). Sensory expectations based on product-extrinsic food cues: An interdisciplinary review of the empirical evidence and theoretical accounts. Food Quality & Preference40, 165-179.

Rosenbaum, R. (1979). Today the strawberry, tomorrow… In N. Klein (Ed.), Culture, curers and contagion (pp. 80-93). Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp.

Shell, E. R. (1979). Chemists whip up a tasty mess of artificial flavors. Smithsonion17(1).

Spence, C. (2015a). Just how much of what we taste derives from the sense of smell? Flavour4:30.

Spence, C. (2015b). Multisensory flavour perception. Cell161, 24-35.

Spence, C. (2015c). Leading the consumer by the nose: On the commercialization of olfactory-design for the food & beverage sector. Flavour4:31.

Spence, C. (2016). Oral referral: Mislocalizing odours to the mouth. Food Quality & Preference.

Spence, C., & Piqueras-Fiszman, B. (2014). The perfect meal: The multisensory science of food and dining. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Spence, C., & Youssef, J. (2015). Olfactory dining: Designing for the dominant sense. Flavour, 4:32.

Stuckey, B. (2012). Taste what you’re missing: The passionate eater’s guide to why good food tastes good. London, UK: Free Press.

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