The Nose Knows

Pacific Science Center


Flavor Scientist STEM Activity table with Mary Kate

In an unusual turn of events, my 14-year-old has proclaimed she learned something from her mom. Prior conversations involved me being told I am mean and know nothing.

So does this mean that my teen daughter has matured and appreciates her mom’s wisdom?

Not exactly, she learned at my STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) presentations that our noses are responsible for allowing us to sense food’s flavor. Therefore, when I insisted she “at least try ” the slaw I made for dinner the other night, she proclaimed she learned something useful from mom and ate the slaw while plugging her nose. She knew if she did this she would avoid sensing the slaw’s flavor.


Guessing the flavor of the drink while dad plugs your nose

We can only sense a food’s flavor by using our noses. Our tongue can sense tastes like sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami, but flavor is attributed to the sense of smell. When I was in school (1990), I learned that different parts of your tongue sensed different tastes (for example bitter was sensed at the back of your tongue). We have since learned differently.  As pointed out in this 2006 article from Live Science “the notion that the tongue is mapped in four areas-sweet, sour, salty and bitter- is wrong…..the entire tongue can sense all of these tastes more or less equally.”

Not only is the science regarding the sense of taste still evolving, the science behind the sense of smell is also evolving. In 1991, Linda Buck and Richard Axel, published findings on the sense of smell. They discovered there are genes responsible for processing odor detection in the nose and not in the brain. These genes are numerous, in a rat it can be over 1,000. In 2004 Buck and Axel were awarded a Nobel Prize for Medicine for this research.


Linda Buck display at the Pacific Science Center

This Nobel Prize recognizes how important the sense of smell is to the quality of life and how it is of central importance to most species. We can recognize over 10,000 different smells. How we do this was previously highly debated. Another scientist, Lucas Turin, has a theory that the sense of smell is due to the vibrations of chemical bonds.  Chandler Burr wrote a book about Lucas Turin and his theory in Emperor of Scent: A True Story of Perfume and Obsession.

Most flavor chemists and perfumers find this science very exciting. The Pacific Science Center also finds this very exciting and has an entire section of their center devoted to “Fragrant Flashbacks”. Perhaps some of their excitement is due to the fact that Linda Buck conducted her research in Seattle, Washington.


Pacific Science Center invited the Society of Flavor Chemists to set up an activity table by the Fragrant Flashback Portal for their “Seeds to Eats” program on Mother’s Day weekend. Since I am local, I responded the inquiry and set up a table which included:

  • guessing the flavor of a clear beverage while nose was plugged/vs unplugged
    • New York Seltzer Rootbeer
    • kids guessed “Sprite” when their noses were plugged and then minty or vanilla soda when unplugged
  • jars of botanicals (such as orange peel, vanilla bean, spearmint and winter berries) to open and smell
  • aroma strips dipped in the characterizing component or essential oil of the botanical:
    • orange oil for orange peel
    • vanillin for vanilla beans
    • cinnamic aldehyde for cinnamon bark
    • L-carvone for spearmint
    • methyl salicylate for winter berry
    • allyl caproate for pineapple
    • benzaldehyde for cherry
    • anethole for star anise
    • iso Amyl acetate for banana
  • flavors blended with aroma strips
    • rootbeer (vanilla, wintergreen, cinnamon, anethole)
    • bubblegum (vanilla, wintergreen, orange, cinnamon, banana, spearmint)
    • fruit punch (cherry, orange, pineapple)



Flavor Scientist activity table

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with visitors to the Science Center about flavors and seeing their interest. In addition, I received a nice thank you card and felt supported by their display highlighting the importance of the sense of smell.




special note: 

On my behalf, my husband ate two servings of my sesame slaw.  He must have found it a delicious accompaniment to the modified* slow cooker asian style drumsticks we ate for dinner. (*reduce sugar in half, double the garlic and add bay leaf )


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  1. Susie Q – I loved being a part of this, and not just because we stopped at Top Pot donuts afterwards. All those tiny kids with their adorable, wee noses – it was fun! And I want that slaw recipe.

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