Make Products Sweeter with Sight, Smell, Sound & Touch

Originally Published: August 1, 2017
Last Updated: February 24, 2021
When removing sugar from foods, methodology similar to pyramid stacking can achieve the desired sweetness intensity.

August 1, 2017 – “How do you make food and beverages sweet without using sugar?” asked Alex Woo, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of W2O Food Innovation. Answering his own question, he continued, “You can do this by combining a basic understanding of neuroscience and ingredient technology.” As Woo explained, in doing so, you can also make products sweeter with sight, smell, sound & touch.

Woo began his presentation by expanding upon conventional concepts of “flavor,” setting the stage whereby to show how to systematically achieve a 12% sucrose-level of sweetness typically associated with carbonated, sugared beverages. He proposed a pyramidal approach to using low- or no-calorie sweetener alternatives.

First, said Woo, flavor is not just about the five primary tastes. “Flavor is also 80-90% influenced by smell in the nose.” Touch receptors in the mouth let us distinguish between grainy, creamy or crunchy foods. Sound has been labeled “the forgotten flavor sense” by one academic researcher. “So, when we are talking about flavor in foods, we are really talking about the full integration of all five senses…smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing.” Each of these senses is called a “modality.”

Woo briefly summarized the different taste receptors in the mouth. “We are hard-wired to make no mistakes in detecting primary tastes, in large part, for survival reasons.” Signals from different taste and other receptors are integrated into perceived flavors by the brain.

In order to remove sugar from a product while protecting its sweet taste perception, Woo proposed “a methodology similar to stacking layers onto a pyramid in order to achieved the desired sweet taste intensity.”

First, there is a foundational layer comprising a high-potency, plant-based sweetener (HPS), such as stevia. If the stevia is stacked with monk fruit (not yet approved in the EU) in a 2:1 ratio (200-100ppm), this achieves about 6% sucrose equivalence (SE) in sweetness. This is equivalent to about a 50% sucrose reduction for most beverages in the market, said Woo.

The next step is to add a bulk non- or low-caloric sweetener, such as erythritol or allulose, to boost the sweetness by an additional 2% to approximately 8% SE. “Less is more,” counseled Woo. You want to add just enough of each sweetener to maximize its sweetness effect without contributing off-flavors. In addition, there are the time-intensity curves to be considered, as addressed by John Fry, Connect Consulting, in his presentation.

The next step on the pyramid relies upon “cross-modal correspondence.” This refers to the integration of multiple signals from all five senses in the brain. Of these, the most important is smell. “We have about 400 smell receptors in the nose that can detect up to trillion different odors” which interact with taste to create flavors. Phantom flavors are those that operate below their own taste detection level but serve to enhance the sweetness of sweeteners. Congruent flavors are aroma molecules above the detection level that are typically associated with sweetness. These include sugar, honey or molasses distillates, tomato aroma, tea distillates or vanilla aroma.

Combined, this achieves about 10% SE. But for carbonated diet beverages, one will need a 12% SE. This requires “cross-modal modulation,” involving the interplay between the other sensory modalities. Again, you can make products sweeter with sight, smell, sound & touch. Examples follow:

Touch, including temperature sensations and carbonation (a pain agent), can mute differences between different artificial, high-potency sweeteners, making them more like sucrose. Lower temperatures make stevia more potent, while higher temperature increases sweetness perception in chocolate.

Sight: Shape (roundness) is associated with sweetness. Symmetrical and minimal features serve to enhance sweetness perceptions by 10-30% (in chocolates, for example). Such associations also exist in nature, where round fruits are associated with
sweetness. The color red is also associated with sweetness. Woo noted that both Coke and Pepsi’s carbonated beverages emphasize round shapes and red colors in their packaging.

Sound has been easy to overlook, but there is considerable documentation linking it to sweetness perception. High-pitched music has been associated with increased sweetness, whereas low-pitched music suggests increased bitterness.

Combined, this pyramidal combination of ingredients based on neuroscience serves to attain the 12% SE target for sweetness.

“Simply Sweet: Updates on How to Make Foods and Beverages Sweeter with Sight, Smell, Sound and Touch,” Alex Woo, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of W2O Food Innovation,

The summary above is from the “2016 Sweetener Systems Conference Magazine.”