Each American consumes almost a ton of food each year, yet we rarely stop to ponder how our sense of taste functions. On Nov. 8, Yale students learned about the often overlooked science of taste from Arielle Johnson, a professional flavor chemist and fellow of the MIT Media Lab.

The talk, held at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, was part of Chewing the Fat, an event series that “offers Yale students a chance to learn more about food and farming through guest speakers, culinary workshops, and film screenings,” according to the website for the Yale Sustainable Food Program. Johnson’s visit was co-hosted by the Sustainable Food Program, Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale and the Yale Landscape Lab.

“Flavor is not just an experience to make us eat more chips — if we look at the molecules that we sense as flavors, there’s a lot more going on,” Johnson said.

Irwin Li, the current Lazarus Fellow in Sustainable Food and Agriculture, introduced Johnson, explaining that the discipline of flavor science “may direct the future of food.”

“Whether it’s a plant sensing its climate or an animal eating prey, there’s a rich world of chemistry that we can tie to smell and aroma,” Johnson said.

She described how plants produce flavorful compounds without any intention of being eaten. Rather, these molecules support vital functions, such as stress adaptation, response to dehydration and UV exposure.

So, Johnson explained, by manipulating the environments in which the plants grow, scientists can increase their flavors. For instance, raising a basil plant in a dehydrated context may cause it to taste stronger, potentially creating new flavors.

Johnson, who completed a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and a doctorate in agricultural and environmental chemistry, focuses on the “molecular level of flavor creation,” detailing the specific molecules that we sense as flavors. One group of flavor molecules Johnson studied was ant pheromones, which can smell like coconut and geraniums and have the potential to give rise to flavors like coriander.

Johnson gained much of her professional experience in taste chemistry through her role as a resident scientist at Noma, a fine dining restaurant in Denmark.

“It has been named the best restaurant in the world several times — that’s why they can afford to have a scientist on their staff,” Johnson explained about Noma.

Noma has a kitchen devoted entirely to exploring new ingredients and flavors, Johnson said. The restaurant is committed to serving only local and seasonal ingredients, a challenge given that the often brutal climate of Denmark is inhospitable to many crops.

In Noma’s laboratory-kitchen, Johnson has made vinegar from leftover celery, created miso from leftover peas and fostered microbe growth to make the perfect sauerkraut.

“Noma is both a restaurant and research institute,” she said.

Noma was opened in 2003.

Jessica Pevner | jessica.pevner@yale.edu .