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Which scents make you the hungriest? Decoding characteristic food odors

Does the odor of tomato sauce, curry powder, turmeric, pepper, cumin, coriander, and other spices combined with yogurt make you hungry? Or does a waft of chocolate vapor do that? How about lasagne, grape leaves, or ziti? If you've ever wondered how we recognize characteristic food odors, now scientists have decoded the odors while mapping molecular olfactory signatures of various foodstuffs. Individual differences in what foods make you most hungry vary from one person to the next. It's individual. On the other hand, a new study from the Irish biochemist J.C.M. Stewart says that eating tomatoes might give people worse body odor. There are compounds called terpenes in tomatoes, along with other fruits and vegetables, that give them a distinct smell and flavor, says news reports on the study. You may wish to check out the Modern Farmer article, "Do Tomatoes Cause Body Odor?"

Which scents make you the hungriest? Decoding characteristic food odors.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

And in another study, researchers found that the typical aromas of foodstuffs are encoded by just a few key odors. How are we able to recognize foodstuffs like strawberries, coffee, barbecued meat or freshly boiled potatoes by smell alone? Foodstuffs contain more than 10,000 different volatile substances. But only around 230 of these determine the odor of the food we eat, explains a new study, For more information, you may wish to check out the study or its abstract, "Nature's Chemical Signatures in Human Olfaction: A Foodborne Perspective for Future Biotechnology," recently published online, June 18, 2014 in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Narrowing it down further, between just 3 and 40 of these key odors are responsible for encoding the typical smell of an individual foodstuff. These compounds are then decoded by around 400 olfactory receptors in the nose. Scientists have presented these findings in chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie International.

Complementing the five basic tastes of sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami, a large variety of odors also contribute to the overall sensory impression of a foodstuff. In recent decades, approximately 10,000 volatile food compounds have been identified. Scientists from Technische Universität München (TUM) and the German Research Center for Food Chemistry (DFA) have carried out a meta-analysis on the odorant patterns of 227 food samples.

How cognac gets its complex notes

They were surprised to find that the almost unlimited variety of food smells is based on 230 key odorants. In addition, each foodstuff has its own odor code comprised of a core group of between just 3 and 40 of the 230 key odorants – in specific concentrations. These small groups of odorous substances are what give all kinds of foodstuffs – from pineapple to wine to roast meat – their unmistakable aromas.

“So for example, the smell of cultured butter is encoded by a combination of just 3 key molecules, but fresh strawberries have 12,” explains Prof. Peter Schieberle according to the June 26, 2014 news release, "Decoding characteristic food odors." Schieberle is the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) Chair of Food Chemistry and Molecular Sensory Science. Cognac is the most complex of all: the smell of this popular brandy is attributable to 36 key molecules.

Brain blends individual notes to create a new odor identity

The chemical odor codes are translated into olfactory stimulus patterns when food is consumed. For this, the key odorous substances have to interact with one or more of the 400 olfactory receptors in the nose. “A combination of between just few key odorants creates an authentic perception of odors. This is all the more surprising given that the olfactory quality of the combinations is not determined by the individual components,” says Professor Thomas Hofmann, the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) Chair of Food Chemistry and Molecular Sensory Science.

When people perceive external chemical odor patterns and process them in the brain, the individual odor components do not just add up. Rather, the individual olfactory notes are translated into a new odor identity. “In view of the chemical odor code combination possibilities and the 400 or so different olfactory receptors, it appears that there is a more or less unlimited number of discernible odor qualities,” claims Schieberle, according to the news release.

Optimizing odors in food production

So far, scientists have identified 42 receptors that respond to food odors – with the majority binding multiple odor molecules. “By mapping the odorous substances of the 230 currently known key odors, scientists can test which receptor combinations are ‘reserved’ for food odors,” explains Hofmann. “This will help us explain the biological relevance of odors in even greater detail.”

The mapping of odor codes opens up new possibilities for biotechnology applications. For example, knowing more about the odor codes of crop plants and fruits at molecular level can be useful to breeders. In the past, increasing yield and ground coverage had a much higher priority than sensory quality. The findings also lay the scientific groundwork for the next generation of aroma products, which use the potential of optimized biosynthetic pathways in plants for industrial-scale production of high-quality food odorants.

This latest odorant mapping will also enable more precise natural simulation of odors

This will bring us a step closer to new applications in mobile communication systems such as sending olfactory messages by smartphone or even the development of bioelectronic noses. Authors of the new study are Andreas Dunkel, Martin Steinhaus, Matthias Kotthoff, Bettina Nowak, Dietmar Krautwurst, Peter Schieberle and Thomas Hofmann.

For more information, you may wish to check out the study or its abstract, "Nature's Chemical Signatures in Human Olfaction: A Foodborne Perspective for Future Biotechnology," recently published online, June 18, 2014 in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Speaking of food odors, do you love the aroma of tikka masala sauce over any type of warm, savory comfort food?

As a vegan, you can prepare chicken tikka masala using chickpeas instead of chicken or try marinated chunks or pieces of tempeh and small, diced tofu chunks instead of chunks of boned chicken breast covered in the delicious masala sauce that mixes tomato paste with yogurt or cream. For those who do eat small chunks of chicken how about marinating the chicken in Indian spices? For vegans and vegetarians, it's chickpeas, not chicken, or sweet potatoes, spices, and it's the creamy tomato-yogurt or creamed tomato and spice sauces that give the food the real flavor, regardless of whether the food is vegan, vegetarian, or other.

And for those vegans who don't eat chicken chunks, you can use those tempeh or tofu, seitan, chickpeas, sweet potato, or other vegan forms of food. Still others might consider chunks of fried or paneer cheese marinated and served beneath a thick and creamy a tomato and yogurt sauce, in the masala style, using similar spices. See, "Paneer tikka masala - restaurant style - Veg Recipes of India," or "Paneer Tikka Masala | Manjula's Kitchen | Indian Vegetarian Recipes." There's also a YouTube video on this type of recipe. See, "Paneer Tikka Masala recipe : Indian vegetarian recipe." Of course, you may use chick peas and/or sweet potatoes instead of chicken when making any type of tikka masala entree. Check out the Vegan Tikka Masala Recipe - Sweet Potato, Chickpeas. Yogurt doesn't have to be dairy-derived. For example, you can use plain, unsweetened yogurt made from coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk, hemp milk, various nut or grain milk substitutes, pureed tofu, or other vegan blends that you can make yourself or buy.

The vegan tikka masala ingredients without using chicken or any type of meat are:

Vegetable (and Vegan) sweet potato and chickpea Tikka Masala

Recipe type: Main

Serves: 2


For the Sauce

  • 4 medium onions, chopped
  • cloves garlic, pureed
  • 1 tsp ginger, pureed
  • 4-5 curry leaves
  • 5 whole cardamom pods
  • 1 green chilli, deseeded and chopped
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp Tandoori Masala mix
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 2-3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 200ml tin of cooked chickpeas, drained
  • ½ green pepper, chopped or sliced
  • ½ yellow pepper, chopped or sliced
  • 1 tbsp coconut cream
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 cup tinned tomatoes, pureed
  • 2 tsp tomato puree
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • salt and pepper
  • Chopped coriander

For the Rice

  • 1 cup of rice (we used Thai Jasmine)
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 4-5 whole cloves
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom powder
  • Salt & water to cook the rice

For the instructions on how to mix and cook these ingredients, click on the Vegan Tikka Masala Recipe site. There also are numerous other vegan tikka masala recipes online, such as the recipes at the sites, Veggieful: Vegan Vegetable Tikka Masala Recipe, Vegetarian Tikka Masala Recipe | Eating Well, chicken Tikka Masala - Vegan Style Recipe -, Veggieful: Vegan Vegetable Tikka Masala Recipe, Vegetarian Chicken Tikka Masala Recipe from Quorn, and Vegetarian Chickpea Tikka Masala Recipe | Vegetarian Times. What you may find helpful is that there is a vegan form of tikka masala.

It's the tangy and spicy tomato and creamy ingredients mixture that makes the sauce give the other ingredients that tikka masala taste, that's the flavor of tomato combined with spices in a creamy sauce. That's why it's the sauce that's the flavor, not whether you pour the sauce on something else such as chicken, chickpeas, sweet potato, or anything else that's a chewy, smooth, small chunk of comfort food, such as a vegetable that's easy to chew and soft.

The original chicken masala recipes usually call for boneless chicken breast cut into 2 inch cubes. In Sacramento you can read the reviews of where to eat chicken marsala locally. See the site, Sacramento chicken marsala Reviews - Find chicken marsala. However, there is Indian spicy Chicken Tikka Marsala and Italian-style chicken marsala, which is chicken in a sauce with wine. For the Italian recipe for chicken marsala, not the Indian chicken tikka Marsala, see the Italian-style chicken marsala recipe at Epicurious Recipes.

You also could substitute turkey or any other substitute such as tempeh or seitan or anything that tastes like chicken if you want and if you don't eat chicken. It's the sauce that's going to be basted over the baked chicken or other white meat or meat substitute.

You can marinate your boneless chicken breasts overnight today in a mixture of oil mixed with freshly ground ginger, garlic, white pepper, and chili powder and then barbeque the chicken as usual. For a curry taste, use a pinch of curry powder over the marinated chicken before grilling, barbequeing, or baking and basting with the sauce.

If you want the full recipe for chicken tikka marsala, check out the Indian Food Forever website for the specific recipe below. But here are all the spices listed below, so you don't have to go out and buy ready-mixed curry powder. For vegetarians, instead of putting the mixture over chicken, you can pour it over tofu turkey, stir-fried veggies, or even popcorn that's already popped for that matter and have spicy popcorn.

Chicken Tikka Marsala recipe 1

Part A:
2 lbs. boneless chicken breast
1/4 cup yogurt
3 tsp minced ginger
3 tsp crushed garlic
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp mace
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp green cardamom powder
1/4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
3 tbsp lemon juice
4 tbsp vegetable oil
Your favorite melted butter, fat, or oil (for basting) or use extra virgin olive oil or sesame seed oil. The original recipe from the website mentions margarine. But you can come up with something less modern and healthier to melt over your meal.

Part B:
5 oz. tomato paste
10 oz. tomato puree
2 lbs. tomatoes, chopped
2 tsp ginger paste
2 tsp garlic paste
2 tsp green chilies
1 tbsp red chili powder
2 tsp cloves
8 green cardamoms
Salt To Taste
3 tbsp butter
2/3 cup cream
1 tsp fenugreek
2 tsp ginger, julienned
honey to taste


Follow the recipe at the website for exact step-by-step instructions. Or to make it very simple, just marinate all the spices together as a marinade on the boneless, skinless chicken breasts overnight in the refrigerator in a covered glass bowl.

The exact recipe on the site requests that you mix everything from part A in a bowl and then add the chicken breast. The recipe asks you to first cut the chicken up into 2 inch cubes. Then you marinate the chicken overnight afte it's cut up and soaked or marinated overnight in the refrigerator.

Then you take the chunks out and the sauce/marinade and bake the chicken, basting with your favorite oils or fats. The recipe mentions margarine. But you can use some fat or oil healthier than margarine. How about sesame oil, cultured butter, grape seek oil, rice ban oil, or extra virgin olive oil. Why use margarine when you can use the real fat or oil used before margarine was invented? After all in India, for hundreds of years of making marsala, no one heard of margarine.

Anyway, you bake your chicken at 350 degrees F until it's done. You drain the marinade and bake some more. The recipe gives you 10 minutes total of baking, but sometimes the chicken just isn't done after 10 minutes or you can't chew it properly if you're older with weak teeth. So feel free to bake it until it's soft and chewy. You baste the chicken twice with the oil or fat of your choice.

Then you make the sauce mentioned in part B of the recipe. If you don't like spicy green chilies, leave out the chilies or just use a tiny bit. What you'll be using most of is tomato paste and tomate puree. You just mix it with 4 cups of water. The recipe mentions 4 and a quarter cups of water. It's your choice.

Then you add your garlic paste, ginger, green chilies if desired, depending upon how spicy you want it to taste. You add the cloves, cardamom, and if you use salt, put in a pinch of salt. Careful, if you have salt sensitivity. Flavor more with garlic and ginger or pepper that's not processed with salt, if you're sensitive to salt or other spices. Add your favorite spices if you have adverse reactions to any particular spice you can't tolerate. You have a wide choice of spices.

Just cook over low heat. The water will evaporate, and you'll be left with a thick sauce. You strain the sauce, bring it to a boil again, add your fats such as butter and cream, stir, and serve. If you don't like the sour taste or the tartness, add a spoon full of honey to cut the tartness.

Then you add the fenugreek and ginger juliennes, stir, and serve with the chicken. See the various recipes online for South Asian/Indian marsala dishes such as chicken marsala over rice. And for health, use brown or black rice instead of white rice. If you want a less spicy recipe for a different tasting, Italian-style Chicken Marsala, check out this other recipe at the Epicurious Recipes site. The Chicken Tikka Marsala recipe Indian style is at the Indian Food Forever site.

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