Flavors: What Are They And How Do They Work?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  June 5, 2022

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The 5 senses of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing all work together to experience flavors. 

There are hundreds of different flavors in food, from savory to sweet to bitter to sour.  Flavors are what make food taste delicious, so it’s important to understand what they are. 

In this article, I’ll dive into what flavors are, how they work, and what different flavors you can experience in food.

What are flavors

Understanding Flavor Profiles

What are Flavor Profiles?

When you eat something, your tongue, nose, palate, and even your teeth get in on the action. Each food item has its own unique flavor profile that your taste buds can detect. The five official “tastes” are salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. But it’s not just taste that makes up a flavor profile – temperature, texture, and spiciness level also play a role.

Why are Flavor Profiles Important?

Flavor profiles are important because they help us understand the food we’re eating. Plus, everyone has different preferences when it comes to temperature, texture, and spiciness, so it’s important to consider these things when creating a flavor profile.

The Five Tastes

Here’s the skinny on the five official tastes:

  • Salty: That salty, savory flavor that makes your mouth water.
  • Sweet: That sugary, sweet flavor that makes your taste buds tingle.
  • Sour: That tart, acidic flavor that makes your mouth pucker.
  • Bitter: That bitter, astringent flavor that makes your mouth dry.
  • Umami: That savory, umami flavor that makes your mouth water.

The Bitter Truth

Why We Don’t Like Bitter

  • We don’t like bitter because it’s an evolutionary defense – plants that tasted bitter were often poisonous.
  • Our sensory cells have more proteins that respond to bitter tastes than any other taste.
  • We try to avoid it because it’s not a pleasant flavor.

Using Bitter to Balance Flavors

  • Bitter can be used to add depth to flavor profiles.
  • To balance the bitterness, use sweet, sour, and salty foods.
  • Foods like coffee, spinach, kale, grapefruit juice, beer, endives, dandelion greens, broccoli, or radicchio can be used to achieve bitterness.
  • To make bitter foods more palatable, pair them with vinaigrette or a dollop of Greek yogurt.

The Temperature Factor

The Impact of Temperature on Flavor

When I heard that the temperature of our dish was a key part of the flavor profile, I was like, “Whaaaat? How does that even affect the taste?” But, turns out, the temperature is a big part of the eating experience, even if it’s more about our expectations than anything else. Let’s look at potato salad, for example:

  • In the U.S., if you served warm potato salad, people would be like, “Ew, gross!”
  • But in Germany, it’s gotta be served warm or else it’s a no-go
  • And pizza? It should taste the same cold as hot, but it just doesn’t, right?

Temperature and the Eating Experience

Temperature plays a huge role in the way we experience food. It’s all about expectations, ya know? Here are some examples:

  • Hot soup? Comforting and soothing. Cold soup? Refreshing and invigorating.
  • Hot tea? Relaxing and calming. Iced tea? Refreshing and energizing.
  • Hot coffee? Warming and energizing. Cold brew? Smooth and mellow.

So, the next time you’re cooking up something delicious, don’t forget to consider the temperature factor!

Exploring Textures in Food

What is Texture?

Texture is all about the feel of food in your mouth. Think creamy, flaky, chewy, rich, sticky, spongy, slimy, crunchy, cakey, dry, moist, fatty, gelatinous, granular, mushy, pulpy, tough.you get the idea. It’s all about the mouthfeel.

Variety is the Spice of Life

When it comes to textures, variety is key. Mix it up a bit – try something crunchy with slimy noodles, or something creamy on top of a chewy brownie. Yum!

Fresh Herbs for the Win

Want to add some fresh flavor and a homemade feel to any dish? Fresh herbs are the way to go. Check out our Culinary Herb Garden Kit to grow your own herbs year-round.

Understanding Flavor Profiles

Why is it Important?

Ever been stuck trying to figure out what’s missing from your dish? Or wanted to try out a new recipe but didn’t know where to start? Knowing the elements of flavor profiles and how they interact with each other (especially the five tastes) can help you identify that missing ingredient and come up with some creative dishes.

Achieving Balance

  • Different flavors come together to create balance on our taste buds. Think Mexican hot chocolate with a hint of cayenne pepper or Thai curry with its sweetness from coconut milk and sugar, saltiness from fish sauce, umami from mushrooms, spiciness from curry paste, earthiness from herbs, and sourness from lime.
  • The goal is to achieve harmony in taste.
  • The most successful dishes are those that have flavors chosen carefully for enhancement and achieve a level of balance.

Understanding Taste Balance

The Rules

  • Sweet balances sour.
  • Sour balances sweet.
  • Sweet balances spice.
  • Spice balances sweet.
  • Sour balances spice.
  • Sour balances bitter.
  • Salty/Umami balances bitter.
  • Bitter balances salty/umami.

The Science Behind it

  • Taste is a bunch of sensations we experience when a taste bud comes in contact with food.
  • When this happens, a chemical substance is released in the mouth and it heads to a sensory nerve cell.
  • Each taste bud has between 10-50 of those first sensory cells.
  • Each of those cells has their own taste preferences and there are 10 levels of intensity for each sensory cell.
  • Add in touch, temperature, and smell which all affect our perception of flavor.
  • Our sensory cells are replaced every 2 weeks or so, but through our life, they slowly stop renewing.
  • Most of our taste buds are centralized on the edges and the back of our tongue, but also can be found in the back of our throat, nasal cavity, epiglottis, and upper esophagus.
  • MYTH BUSTER: There are no tongue taste zones. All of the tastes can be tasted on all parts of your tongue.
  • THE NEWEST DEVELOPMENT: Scientists are currently identifying sensory receptors that are specifically geared to recognize fat, which would make it the sixth basic taste!

Treat Your Taste Buds!

  • Use fresh, healthy ingredients, and don’t be afraid to try clever combinations, experiment with tastes, and push the boundaries of your kitchen.
  • Grow ingredients in your own garden or garden kit.
  • Food is about love, so love it, and let it love you.

What are Artificial Flavors?

The Benefits of Artificial Flavors

  • Artificial flavors are synthetically created in a lab, making them much cheaper than natural flavors.
  • They are rigorously tested for health risks and safety, making them much safer than natural flavors.
  • Artificial flavors can help restore the flavor content of a processed food item.

The Drawbacks of Artificial Flavors

  • Artificial flavors don’t have the same natural taste as natural flavors.
  • They can be difficult to replicate, and may not always taste the same.
  • Artificial flavors can be difficult to source, as they are not always available.

The Bottom Line

Artificial flavors can be a great way to add flavor to processed foods, but they don’t always taste the same as natural flavors. They are much cheaper and safer than natural flavors, but can be difficult to source. So if you’re looking for a cheap and safe way to add flavor to your food, artificial flavors might be the way to go!


In conclusion, flavors are an essential part of our food experience. Whether they are natural or artificial, they can be used to enhance the taste of food and make it more enjoyable. So, don’t be afraid to experiment with different flavors and find out what works best for you. And remember, when it comes to flavors, it’s all about the CHEMISTRY!

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Lakeside Smokers is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with BBQ Smoking (& Japanese food!) at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.