The taste of fizz

I read an article today that begins, at least, to answer a question I have long wondered about: Why do carbonated beverages taste the way they do?

Growing up, the only flavors of soda we normally bought were ginger ale and root beer. (Sometimes we bought Wink, which was my favorite. I haven’t seen it in years, but I think Fresca tastes similar, and these days I only drink diet pop anyway.) I never gave much thought to what made them taste the way they did, but I’m sure I attributed the taste to the flavorings and not the carbonation.

Then when I was a student in Spain, I discovered the difference between “agua con gas” and “agua sin gas.” Unlike restaurants in the U.S., that brought glasses of water to the table as a matter of course, restaurants in Spain generally served water only in bottles that had to be purchased. I normally ordered “sin gas” (without gas), as ordinary water seemed much more thirst-quenching. (Perhaps it was just that I could drink more of it.) But occasionally I would end up with “con gas” because I wasn’t careful in placing my order.

There were no flavorings added, so the only difference was clearly from the carbonation. It puzzled me that adding carbon dioxide gas – which I knew was in the air all around me and so far as I could tell had no taste – could change the taste of water that way.

Now scientists have figured out the it is the taste buds that sense sourness that taste fizz. (Also fascinating is the process by which they figured it out, which I would guess is a good example of how scientists go about learning much of what we know about genes and how they control physiology.) But as fizz doesn’t taste sour, there is still plenty more for researchers to figure out.

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2 Responses to The taste of fizz

  1. Margaret Packard says:

    Wink was my favorite, too. I have found soda called Wink more recently, but the formula has been changed to “citrus” instead of just grapefruit and it has less tang than I remember. I remember Daddy explaining to me that the carbon dioxide in soda causes it to contain a weak acid, and that is what we taste. I’m not sure how that compares to what scientists have discovered about taste. Here’s something I have always wondered: Why does the fizz in fresh ginger ale jump out of the glass into my nose? Whereas root beer forms a head?

  2. Pauline says:

    My impression is that ginger ale has more carbonation (i.e. more carbon dioxide dissolved in it) than most other soft drinks, including root beer. Some brands of ginger ale have especially high levels. So there’s a lot more gas trying to escape, and the bubbles are likely to go further.

    It was an article in today’s WSJ – which I read online last night – about champagne, that got me reading up on fizz. Researchers found that “highly carbonated champagne effervesces at the rate of about 400 bubbles per second, compared with a rate of about 150 bubbles per second for beer.” They also used mass spectroscopy to measure how the popping bubbles spread aromatic compounds to nearby noses.

    So I would guess that high carbonation shoots lots of bubbles into the air, lower carbonation lets them sit on the surface of the liquid. Also, I looked up info on root beer, and found out that they add yucca extract to enhance the head.

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