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Thermal tasters: Linking phantom taste, product perception and temperature

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

People who are ‘thermal tasters’ report phantom taste responses when orally exposed to different temperatures. Understanding this phenomenon is important for product development in the food industry.

According to Dr Martha Skinner, a taste scientist at the University of Nottingham, up to 50% of the population report perceiving phantom tastes in response to hot or cold stimuli. “It is an important phenotype,”​ she said at an Institute of Food Science and Technology event last week.

There are some significant differences between how thermal tasters and thermal non-tasters perceive taste, she continued. “Attributes in some complex products have been found to be reported at a higher intensity by thermal tasters….although this doesn’t always translate into a difference in preference."

Thermal tasters also report a lower preference to foods that can be categorised as “mushy”​ such as cooked vegetables.

Dr Skinner’s research took an interdisciplinary approach that used neuro imagery to record the brain responses of thermal tasters – as well as collecting sensory data. Thermal tasters are better at distinguishing between samples and have higher levels of brain activation.  “We are seeing different brain responses across this group,” she concluded.

The research was also able to conclude thermal taste responses are repeatable and therefore predictable, Dr Skinner revealed. “Thermal tasting is real. Thermal tasters are reporting it repeatably across different temperature trials.”

Dr Skinner said that understanding the taste responses of this large population grouping is important for the food industry. “We care about thermal taster status because it influences product perception,”​ she said at the IFST meeting.

“Do thermal tasters perceive phantom tastes when consuming everyday products? What is the effect of this heightened sensitivity? Does it impact diet choice and nutrition? Much more research is needed to understand this phenomenon.”

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