How many odors can you recognize?

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Our sense of smell is a powerful sensory ability that we do not fully utilize. In fact, we are not used to giving a name to what we smell, and we cannot describe an odor that we like or dislike. But how many different odors can humans discriminate? A recent study has found that “humans can discriminate more than 1 trillion olfactory stimuli.” That is incredible! However, our brains cannot give meaning to most of these stimuli.

Recognizing scents is a difficult task for most people when they are blinded. This is because we are not used to doing it, as we often smell food or fruits with our eyes (i.e. we recognize them by their appearance and not by their smell) . This is why with closed eyes, most people find it difficult to identify even the smell of an apple.

Many studies tried to determine how many odors an average person can recognize. The tast of recognizing odors is so difficult , that it is often made easier by asking respondents  to smell an odor and identify it from a list of four aroma labels. For instance, a blinded respondent would smell the apple aroma and then asked whether the aroma belongs to a banana, apple, cherry, or cinnamon.

By contrast, a new study from the University of Trieste has made the odor recognition task more difficult by asking the respondents to recognize an odor without any help (i.e., without labels to choose from). They were asked to smell and recognize 13 different aromas in a row: Mint, Rose, Cinnamon, Leather, Peach, Cloves, Strawberry, Raspberry, Apple, Blueberry, Caramel, Sage, Green Bell Pepper.

The results were surprising.

Only 6% of the panel correctly identified the apple aroma without any help!

Most of the respondents associated the apple aroma to over 60 different aromas, commonly to those of pineapple and banana. By contrast, 40% of the respondents correctly recognized the apple aroma when they were given a list of eight aromas to choose from. This improvement indicates that while the apple aroma is something we know really well, our brains struggle to “find” the right name/label for it when not assisted.

Among the aromas that were difficult to identify without any help, were those of cloves, sage, and raspberry (where only 16%, 8%, and 9% of the respondents correctly recognized them, respectively). The aroma of cloves was often confused with that of cinnamon or nutmeg. This means that the respondents had perceived that they were smelling a spice, but they could not just label/name it correctly. Sage was often confused with rosemary, thyme, and mint, which are herbs with similar smells. Raspberry was often confused with peach, apple, or rose.

On the other hand, some aromas are relatively easy to recognize.  The easiest aroma to recognize is mint: 45% of the respondents recognized it without any help, but the majority of the respondents mistook it for eucalyptus (which smells quite similar to mint). The other aromas that are easily recognized by the blinded respondents included rose and cinnamon (37% and 38% of the respondents correctly recognized them, respectively).

What does this tell us about sommelier students?

Describing the bouquet of a glass of wine is as difficult as recognizing a smell when one is blinded and without any help. In fact, a glass of wine gives no hints as to the specific aromas it carries.

Lots of practice in wine tasting  is key in memorizing the aromas and the vocabulary that describes the aromas in wine. Nevertheless, describing the bouquet of a wine is still a difficult task: how can a student recognize in a glass of wine the aromas of hawthorn, violet, rose, and blueberry if he has never smelled them before and if he has never memorized their smell? And if ever he wants to train, where can he find the flowers, spices, and fruits he needs to train his “nose” (especially when these are out of season)?

 The first step toward educating the nose is acquiring the ability to recognize some simple basic aromas in the bouquet of wine. The rest will be taken care of by sommelier instructors, by the wine poured in a glass, and by a lot of tasting .

 Click here to discover TasterPlace aroma to train your sense of smell. 







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