The Science Behind Flavor


I used to associate eating healthy with boring, flavorless foods. I would think of the Instagram meal prep pictures of unseasoned chicken breast and plain broccoli. CHOP5 Salad Kitchen helped change my mind on the possibilities of nutritious foods and healthy, but flavorful options. Anyone who can make kale taste amazing is working some voodoo magic. Okay, well, maybe not magic – it is science that explains why things taste so good. 


Flavor is an experience. It is so much more than just your taste buds. Smell, sight, touch, personal experiences and upbringing can play a factor in what flavors you enjoy. There is a reason your mom’s chocolate chip cookies are the best, even if flavor wise there are objectively better cookies out there. Your past experiences and loving memories enhance the flavor and bring about positive associations. Smell plays a much larger role than you may expect as well. Aroma effects 80% of what we perceive as taste. This makes sense! Just think back to a Thanksgiving meal where you had a cold and you could barely taste the yummy foods. Try this exercise. Make a cup of coffee. For the first sip, plug your nose. Notice how bitter it is. For the second sip take a big sniff of the mug before you sip. This sip is much more pleasant. 


We can sense five types of taste:

  • Sweet – Surprise! this occurs with the presence of sugar (and some proteins and a few other substances). Receptors in the food item bond to proteins located on taste the buds. Sweet is the taste of natural sugars found in many fruits and honey.
  • Salty – Activated by the presence of sodium chloride, and specifically the sodium ion (Na+). Think of your favorite bag of chips. The sodium in them bond to taste buds and a signal pops up to your brain and BOOM. Salty. 
  • Bitter – Bitterness comes from the detection of alkaline substances or bases. Similar to “sweet”, a receptor and protein are involved. Thirty-five different proteins can signal this reaction. 
  • Sour – In the presence of certain acids your brain will ring SOUR. Hydonium ions (H30+) dissociate from the acid and cause the brain to recognize what we come to know as the sour experience. Need to see what this sensation is like? Just pop a lemon slice in your mouth. 
  • Umami (savory) – Certain amino acids (found in proteins) cause us to taste savory. These are often found in aged or fermented foods such as meats and cheeses. Combine these types of foods with salt and you can really amp up the savory effect. 


When it comes to pairing or combining foods, the smell or aroma plays a starring role. Food scientists actually chart out an aroma profile for foods that relates to human sense of smell. They can use this data to pair and combine foods in a way that tastes pleasant. When foods have similar key aromas they are more likely to combine well. As you chew food the aroma intensifies and compounds are released that sends a message to the brain to intensify flavor.

Fan Favorite Flavor Combos

Here are some fool proof combinations that are guaranteed to taste yummy:

  • chocolate & peanut butter 
  • mushrooms & steak
  • basil, mozzarella & tomato (try our Tomato Bisque Soup for this tasty combo)
  • balsamic vinegar & strawberries (try the Avocado Cali Chop to taste the strawberry balsamic combo in action)
  • sage & squash
  • citrus & fennel 
  • shrimp & beef
  • carrots & ginger (The Asian Chop  is a great way to taste this combo)
  • lemon & chicken (try our Lemon Pepper Chicken on your next salad or crave-a-bowl)
  • mango & chili powder
  • root beer float (vanilla & sassafras)
  • pita chips & hummus 

Flavor is a complex game. That is why when you build your own salad or crave-a-bowl full of ingredients you love, it may taste odd. A time or two I have created my own salad and it was awful because I picked a bunch of things I liked, but did not consider the way they would blend. This is also why CHOP5 Salad Kitchen utilizes an experienced chef to come up with our signature recipes. We want to take the guesswork out of what flavors will mesh well. I have taste tested many salads and crave-a-bowls and even ones that have ingredients I disliked, tasted amazing because of how the chef paired the ingredients. Email me (abbyp@chop5.com) your favorite food combos and next time you take a yummy bite consider all the senses and chemical reactions that are involved in signaling “YUM”. 

And remember: Chop well, Eat well, Live well!