How Temperature Affects the Taste of Food

As a child I ate something I deemed "mash.” Whenever we were allowed to eat ice cream, I would enjoy the first few bites then I would wait an eternity for it to warm up. I would then go to town smashing it with the back of my spoon until it was more liquid than soft serve. Even though it didn’t look as good, mash always tasted better than the original ice cream. Now as an adult I occasionally enjoy taking the stresses of life out on my tiny cup of ice cream and mashing it - but it does not taste as good as it did back in the day.


While my taste preferences have changed, I still love ice cream. So why is it that I now prefer cold ice cream? Well, there is some serious science behind the idea of temperature and flavor. The warmer ice cream gets the more flavor and sweetness you are able to detect on your taste buds. My young taste buds couldn't get enough of mash because of the heightened sweetness. Now my adult taste buds cringe at the overly sweet slush and prefer the hard, cold ice cream. The temperatures at which we consume foods alter the way we taste and experience flavor.


Here at FreshTemp, we dwell on food safety, especially cooking and keeping food at safe temperatures (it is what we do best with our Bluetooth thermometers). It also Federal law to cook and store foods at the appropriate temperatures to ensure customers do not get ill. The FDA publishes the Food Code every few years as a temperature guideline for the food retail and service industry to become consistent with national food regulatory policy. Once food is properly prepared and stored, you want to consume it at the ideal temperature for the best experience. 


Chefs know what they are doing. The temperature at which a certain food is served is chosen to provide the optimal taste and texture. Let's use the Oxford Dictionary's definition of taste.

Taste (noun) /tāst/ - The sensation of flavor perceived in the mouth and throat on contact with a substance.

While one's preference for taste is all very subjective (you may love tepid coffee or warm ice cream), the effect of temperature on the perception of taste has been studied scientifically for over a century.


In 1993, the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research revealed a correlation between increasing temperature and more intense perceptions of sweetness and bitterness, while sourness and saltiness tend to remain the same no matter the change in temperature. “Because the effect of temperature is not uniform across compounds, it can be expected that the taste ‘profile’ of a food will change as its temperature changes. If all else is equal, at hot temperatures bitter and sweet tastes should dominate salty and sour ones.”


More recently in 2005, a study determined that TRPM5, a taste receptor, is a highly temperature-sensitive, heat-activated channel, which effects the way taste is perceived based on temperature. Amy Fleming reported:

It's true: melted ice-cream is too sickly to drink, whereas when cold, it is pleasantly sweet. Beer, on the other hand, tastes more bitter as it gets warmer. Ham tastes saltier when cold and more savoury when warm. Some of these effects, such as the over-sweet melted ice-cream, occur because the taste receptor TRPM5 (which picks up sweet, bitter and umami tastes) sends a stronger electrical signal to the brain when food is warmer.[i]


Foods and drinks must be prepared at certain temperature for proper composition and health safety reasons. While coffee is typically prepared at 200F and served at ~160F, you may prefer a hotter cup o’ joe than your coworker. The warmer your food and beverages the more prominent the sweetness or bitterness will be. Now I justify creating mash as a youngster due to my much stronger sweet tooth and a little science.

[i] (Fleming, Hot or not? How serving temperature affects the way food tastes 2013)

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research; Marriott BM, editor. Nutritional Needs in Hot Environments: Applications for Military Personnel in Field Operations. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993. 9, Heat as a Factor in the Perception of Taste, Smell, and Oral Sensation. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK236241/