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Taste Test: New java science offers insights into flavor perception

The facts are in: Research shows that coffee does indeed make life sweeter.

Well … makes it taste sweeter, anyway. Two scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark recently revealed a study into the way that drinking coffee affects flavor perception, and their research finds that java makes all the sweet flavors seem even sweeter.

“Chemosensory Sensitivity after Coffee Consumption Is Not Static: Short-Term Effects on Gustatory and Olfactory Sensitivity” … Published in the peer-reviewed journal Foods, the science looks like a mouthful, but the point is about how your mouth feels. 

Turns out that sipping on coffee of any kind, be it light roast or espresso or decaf, changes your subsequent flavor experiences by temporarily increasing the mouth’s sensitivity to sweetness, while decreasing sensitivity to bitter. Sense of smell does not appear to be affected. 

This result was independent of each beverage’s caffeine content, and among other things, it helps to explain why people enjoy combining intense dark chocolates with their coffee.

Foods is an international journal of food science published online monthly by MDPI, a Switzerland-based pioneer in scholarly open-access publishing since 1996. For their study at the Aarhus Flavour Institute, researchers Alexander W. Fjaeldstad and Henrique M. Fernandes recruited 156 subjects to drink espresso, cleanse their palettes with water, and then undergo a series of taste and smell tests. Sugary flavors were measurably amplified following coffee consumption. This was unexpected, as prior studies suggested that exposure to bitter compounds like caffeine or quinine will generally inhibit the activity of sweet taste receptors.

While it’s still unknown exactly which combination of compounds in your coffee generates these dynamic flavor shifts, the research provides our first scientific evidence of coffee’s impact on short-term taste sensitivity. Meaning that we can measure and respond to the ways people perceive foods during and after drinking coffee -- data with wide-reaching applications in areas such as gastronomy, food additives, and chemosensory science.

For example, with more research, important insights into flavor perception could help amplify sweet tastes without increasing sugar content in foods, affecting the way sweeteners are used as additives. Meanwhile, the average java lover armed with this knowledge can now elevate their coffee and food pairings to a whole new level. Brew up some Kahwa today, and start your own kitchen experiments.

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