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Flavor & Well-Being: A Look at the Undeniable Connection


“What’s your favorite flavor?” Everyone wants to know. For Dr. Suzanne Johnson, it’s black currant and it’s elusive! Food safety laws in the U.S. made it impossible to buy here, so she’s spent a lifetime only able to enjoy it while in her homeland of the U.K. When she does get her hands on anything with her special flavor, she says, “it’s a happier moment.” Therefore, the hypothesis she presented was “Flavor Makes Us Happy.”

Johnson, vice president, research & development, Consumer Technical Innovation Center at McCormick & Co., presented this hypothesis when she took the podium to close the 105th NAFFS Annual Convention at the Resort at Longboat Key Club in Longboat Key, Fla. She was there to address the importance of using one’s senses to increase his/her well-being. The sense of taste and experience of flavor, in her opinion, are not to be underestimated. “They can lead to a life of increased well-being,” Johnson said.

In a room full of flavor industry professionals, it’s hard to imagine the need to connect the dots for this group. But that’s exactly what she did for everyone there. Johnson first explained the importance of soaking in the moments to better enjoy life overall. But when it got to the importance of soaking, that’s when the need to rely on all the individual senses came into play – taste, in particular.

An analytical chemist, she spoke of the sensation of a less-scientific technique of savoring, which she said can be defined as “the experience of stepping outside an experience to review and appreciate it.” All day long, she said, humans experience the world around them through their senses. “The way something smells, how it looks and feels and how it tastes. But savoring that sensation is something additional, a little bit beyond noticing how your senses are affected; to savor means to appreciate it more deeply.”

Appreciation is connected to happiness by many professionals, she added. “The concept of slowing down a moment, taking in the full experience with the human’s host of senses can be gratifying. Done often enough, it can lead to a happier life,” Johnson said.

Johnson went into some scientific detail to help bolster her argument. She showed the sections of the brain, the orthonasal olfactory perceptual system and the retronasal olfactory flavor system, which in tests lit up showing that when people eat, these brain areas get excited.

She explained that when the food was smelled through the nasal cavity, the brainwaves reacted. But when the food was also tasted in the mouth and felt that way in the nasal cavity the lights were much more intense. “It’s in the flavor,” she said. “The flavor, food and emotions are inseparable.”

Johnson said even so, there’s no way to separate flavor and aroma. The role that flavor plays is obvious. The brain doesn’t respond in the same way to an aroma as it does once the food flavor is being experienced in the mouth. It’s a sensation, she said, the brain registers – not just because the food is nutritious and needed for health but because it’s experiencing enjoyment. That, she said, is how she knows flavor creates happiness.

“So, flavor impacts the mood” she said. “It can undeniably make you happy but it can also make you sad.” Disappointment after flavor expectations have been risen and not met is a form of sadness, she added.

The brain is unique to each individual, so every flavor is an individual experience. Each memory attaches itself to the brain differently and flavor recognition plays a big part in that. “Since flavor is a whole-brain experience using all of our senses, this means our understanding of flavor is also tied strongly to memory,” she said. “Flavor perception is just as unique to the individual and the memories associated with a particular flavor may not always be the best ones.”

Johnson cited a 2014 study that found a direct link between the region of the brain responsible for taste memory and the area responsible for encoding the time and place associated with that memory. “For instance, if you primarily eat salted peanuts at baseball games, eating peanuts elsewhere could transport you right back to the ballpark,” she said. The nods in the room told her that her audience was familiar with this phenomenon.

Johnson said the lack of taste and smell some of those suffering from COVID-19 experienced provided another example of this dramatic connection. “There’s been a connection drawn between that loss of taste and smell and mental health implications. It’s been shown to have a severe impact on mood and individual well-being and is a substantial risk factor for anxiety and depression. Researchers have even found that olfactory dysfunction might lead to social disconnection,” she said.

Johnson said she considers herself a student of positive psychology and pointed to research done by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. Johnson said Seligman researched mood enhancement and deflation and found that positive emotions can undo the harmful effects of negative emotions and promote resilience. “Therefore,” she said, “increasing positive emotions helps individuals build physical, intellectual, psychological and social resources that lead to this resilience and overall wellbeing.”

She said Seligman coined the term “positive psychology”. In his view, the discipline of psychology had historically focused on the negatives in people’s brains. He set out to study what makes people happy. He looked at the differences between happy people and sad people. He noted the main difference between humans and all other mammals is the presence of the frontal lobe. The human brain has the ability to plan. Planning increases the anticipation and looking forward to something adds excitement and enjoyment attached to that activity.

“Experiences have been proven to more worthwhile than material things when it comes to happiness,” Johnson said. “The human acts of planning an experience, enjoying it and then remembering it increase happiness so much more than a simple one-time purchase.”

Johnson also referred to work by Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale University, who created a class called “Psychology of the Good Life”. Johnson said that with depression and anxiety levels at a high level, classroom techniques on how to combat the negativity in the brain is in hot demand. She also cited a podcast created by Santos called, which includes a test to rate one’s own happiness.

The concept of experiences being more valuable than material things is well-founded, Johnson said, citing studies that reference how the amount of money someone needs to be happy keeps increasing as they make more money. Dr. Dan Gilbert is professor at Harvard University and studies the things people shouldn’t really want since the perception of it making you happy doesn’t line up with the actuality. He created a podcast called the “Happiness Lab” and wrote a book called “Stumbling on Happiness” about your brain responses, both of which Johnson recommended. “The point is,” she said, “your future self rarely looks back and thanks your former self for doing things to help your future self. Looking back and being grateful is the first step to that happiness.”

Gilbert and Santos both reference a theory known as “Happiness Over Time”. Johnson said humans are born with a baseline happiness range; it’s genetic. She said some sad people might always be that way. Some are always happy and enthusiastic. Happy moments can make that genetically established baseline spike for certain reasons. “However, over time you go back to where you were. The same is true for a particularly negative experience. It’s a proven fact that you can have a bad moment or a very good moment and that over time you return to your base line happiness levels,” she said.

Seligman, she said, wrote a book called “Flourish” and in that laid out a structured theory he called P.E.R.M.A. Johnson said he went into tremendous detail as to the ways society can think about well-being can be increased. The basis for it is psychology. Seligman believes that to change something, one needs to be able to measure or quantify it.

P.E.R.M.A. stands for Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. It was proposed at the University of Pennsylvania to help explain and define human well-being and flourishing. He selected five components that people pursue because they are intrinsically motivating and they contribute to well-being. Johnson said to maximize positive emotions a person needs to concentrate on the current moment in time, not the future living to be done.

“Flavor can be gifted!” said Johnson. “Usually in the form of food, it’s a great way to enhance happiness for both the giver and receiver. Positive emotions are also associated with these social interactions, connecting people. The experience is shared, either literally or as we see today, in photo posts of an enjoyable food and flavor moment. And the gratitude for this sharing can also bring on positive emotions.”

Engagement as it’s seen in psychology “flow” is the idea that you are doing an activity that is so engaging that you are not thinking of anything else, Johnson said. Activities such as reading, golfing and baking can be intense enough to take up the brain waves. “Flavor can fit into this in the ingredients you would need for meal planning for a dinner party; a new dish, for example, can distract in a pleasing, engaging way. A new skill can also create this level of distraction,” she said, citing exploring new cuisines and flavors.

Positive Relationships and Meaning are associated, Johnson said. “The feeling of being supported and loved by others, valued and achieving a sense of well-being from this. Feeling connected to something greater than yourself can add to happiness in and of itself,” she said.

Johnson said Accomplishment is defined as achievement, mastery and success. Embarking on something new can be a great source of inner happiness. Johnson said adding a new skill, maybe something that is appreciated by others, can be helpful. “Baking a cake is an example of capitalizing on flavor while being a huge undertaking when made from scratch and decorated to be enjoyed by others.”

Johnson said proactively working on these five components of PERMA not only increases aspects of personal wellbeing but it’s doubly effective in that it also decreases psychological distress. She added that there are many ways in which flavor selection and enjoyment can play a role in each.

“Focus on the here and now while using all of your senses to take in what’s happening in the moment,” Johnson said. “It’s one pathway to feeling better. Attention to sensory experiences like taste and smell, appearance and experience can all add to an improved moment. Stringing together a series of noticed happy experiences and savoring small, every-day, positive moments can have a significant effect on happiness, resilience, well-being and overall life satisfaction.”

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