Your brain on Skittles: It may not be telling you the truth.

Looks like lemon, tastes like fish

At the International Society of Neurogastronomy, scientists find that there's a lot to how we perceive flavor. By Linda Blackford
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At the International Society of Neurogastronomy, scientists find that there's a lot to how we perceive flavor. By Linda Blackford

What’s your favorite Skittles flavor? (Hint: the correct answer is red.)

Think you can close your eyes and taste which one is red, yellow or green?

Of course, said Lori Hindenlang. Her favorite is orange. She closed her eyes, ate a yellow Skittle and declared it was orange.

“I got it wrong,” she said.

As she quickly found out at the International Society of Neurogastronomy Symposium at the University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital this weekend, there’s a spoiler: Skittles taste pretty much the same, despite the fact that we think they taste like lemon, lime and grape. Before you declare your entire life a lie, one scientist found they have slightly different fragrances along with their very different colors, both of which lead our taste buds into telling our brains certain things.

Mars Wrigley Confectionery denies this Internet debate, saying they have distinct flavors. Nonetheless, for attendees at the conference, the point was made. Sight, smell, consistency, even the implements we use to eat, greatly influence our tastes, and that, in turn, provides important information to people who prepare food for diabetic patients or help someone on chemotherapy try to enjoy food.

Just down the way from the Skittles experiment, conference attendees were tasting different colored gelatin. Hilarity ensued when they dipped into yellow gelatin expecting to taste lemon and found instead ... fish.

The conference started three years ago when Dr. Dan Han, the chief of UK’s neuropsychology program, went to a conference in Montreal. He went to a famous area restaurant called Joe Beef. The chef, Fred Morin, had just read a book on neurogastronomy and engaged Han about their various fields. “He said, “I’ll get the culinary folks together and you get the scientists,” Han said Saturday. “When I approached my colleagues, everyone was interested.”

This year’s symposium included talks such as “The Underappreciated Power of Human Smell,” “Culinary Medicine and Flavor in Clinical Settings, and “Sugar and the Brain’s Reward System.”

The conference is attended by chefs, scientists and anyone interested in food. Jasmine Haymarket is training to be a dietician at Eastern Kentucky University and said she first became interested in neurogastronomy after hearing a lecture by Han.

“I’ve gotten really interested in the correlation between smell and taste,” she said. “Then over Christmas, I had the flu and I couldn’t taste anything, and I was even more interested then.”