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Trigeminal sensations: An emerging area for innovation

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 25-Mar-2010
Last updated on 26-Mar-2010 at 17:11 GMT

Trigeminal sensations: An emerging area for innovation

Hot, cold, spicy, tingling and electric sensations could be used to enhance consumers’ enjoyment of foods and drinks, according to Michael Nestrud, a sensory science PhD candidate at Cornell.

Speaking at the Research Chefs Association conference in Phoenix, Arizona on Saturday, Nestrud highlighted a range of ingredients that affect the trigeminal nerve – a nerve responsible for sensation in the face and mouth, including pain, temperature and touch, but not taste.

Some ingredients that affect the trigeminal nerve are already well-known, such as capsaicin – the compound responsible for chilies’ spiciness – or citric acid for its tingling effect, menthol for its cooling sensation, and the fizzy feeling of carbonated beverages.

However, there is a wide variety of different sensations that can be produced by various chemical compounds, including spilanthol, which comes from yellow flower buds called Sichuan buttons. They produce an electric tingling feeling and a rapid increase in saliva production; erythritol, a sugar alcohol, produces a cooling effect; and cubebol from West African peppercorns has a peppery allspice flavor but also produces a cooling sensation.

Experimentation in candy

This is an area in which confectionery has often led the way – think sour candy, or spicy candy like Atomic Fireballs.

“Candy is one of the places that we see some of these things first, perhaps because children are more willing to try these things than adults, or even teenagers,” Nestrud said.

Among other possible applications for these compounds, Nestrud suggested using spilanthol, for its mouth-watering properties, in soy-based yogurts. Some innovative chefs are already using Sichuan buttons in salads, mixed drinks, chocolate and truffles, as a novelty ingredient for their electric effect.

“People have shown their desire for these things in restaurants,” he said. “…I can’t wait to find an electric hard candy.”

And ice cream is another food application where trigeminal sensations are particularly in evidence. Nestrud thinks that this kind of sensation could partly explain why people often still find room for ice cream even after a big meal.

“I like to call it the tactile symphony,” he said, explaining that the initial cold numbs the tongue and then, as the ice cream is moved around the mouth, the texture is felt all over the mouth, as well as a phase change sensation as it melts. Finally, as it warms, the perception of sweetness is enhanced.

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