Sensory Analysis: Towards the Semiotics of Taste

Jean-Jacques Boutaud, University of Burgundy
[ to cite ]:
Jean-Jacques Boutaud (1999) ,"Sensory Analysis: Towards the Semiotics of Taste", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 337-340.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 337-340


Jean-Jacques Boutaud, University of Burgundy

In the area of nutrition and its associated fields there is substantial scope for semiotic analysis. The combination of flavour and expectation, or the displacement of the one by the other; the reception of flavour by the eater, and the effect these have on one another; in this way taste can be seen to stimulate the processes of signifiation at the centre of a complex set of relations. Semiotics is at the centre of these processes, despite the fact that food-related studies, and the treatment of taste as a semiotic object (Floch 1995), represent a new domain in semiotics. It is clear that the food industry and other organisations concerned with the understanding of the complex mechanisms surrounding the issue of taste are closely affected by this semiotic approach. This is even more the case when the approach to taste responds to the specific challenge of communicating, signifying, and putting into terms the 'pure’ sensation of flavour experienced by the subject. Furthermore, semiotics is the basis for the analysis of the complex network of relations which allow a foodsuff to 'communicate’ its flavour, on both sensory and intellectual levels.

In order to express this question in simple terms, it is first necessary to define the semantic field of taste, through metonymic displacement of the natural to the cultural, the cultural to the cultivated (socially recognised practices), and, more and more, from the cultivated to the culturalized (socially differenciated practces). This allows us to appreciate the full range of values associated culturally and socially with taste as a semiotic object and as an object of communication; these in tern stem from, or act independantly of, the physiological features which characterize it.

From a starting point thus defined, we will outline an axiological approach to taste; its foundations, both sensory and logical, having been established, we will define its construction and image, its representation on several levels: based on the object itself, or on a "tasting experience" which takes into account the subject also. By extension, this multiplies the levels of expression and analyis of taste with respect to consumer representation of the particular foodstuff. We will define, in conclusion, several areas of semiotic approach to the field of taste, in response to the social and professional necessity of examining our alimentary preferences and practices.


From the natural taste process, ie working defensively and instinctively to select foodstuffs (on the basis of distaste), to refined taste capable of elaborating on natural foodstuffs (preparation, cooking), then to cultivated taste with aesthetic and social dimensions; the boundaries of taste are constantly pushed back from a purely sensory regime to one where the senses themselves strive to make sense of their input.

This represents a change of level from what is experienced physiologically by the body, to the symbolic values which society associates with taste: the subjective values of tasting and sampling where eating takes on a significance other than as a biological necessity.

If man still remains attached to the natural functions of taste as a source of pleasure, this has a value only when seen through the "image filter" (Leroi-Gourhan) of lived and reflected experiences. This recalls, in part, Jean-Pierre Corbeau’s notion of a "dramatized presentation of foodstuffs" (1997) and his work on the role played by the imagination in consummation; referring less to the habitus of the subject’s class (the weight of social determinism) than to the eater’s ethos creating its own structures in his socially-conditioned imagination. The impact of images and messages in the media is an important area of study, as is the social discourse stemming from this, which brings into play the foodstuff, the act of eating, and the taste; and calls on the subject to question his own image, and his identity as an eater. In this context the object of interest is less the 'enlightened’ eater in the sense of elitist rites of "good taste", than the 'involved’ eater who seeks to recognise what he eats by situating it in a system of inter-related values surrounding taste.

To resume these various introductory points, we refer to the work of Giorgio Grignaffini on the definition of taste, which outlines the semiotician’s approach treating taste as part of a complicated social network of signs, rather than as a mere psychological manifestation: "The notion of taste covers at least three different nuances. The first is closely linked to to the senses: along with smell, touch, etc., taste is one of the five perceptual senses. The second refers to asthetic judgement, taste is thus a manifestation of the idiosyncratic prejudices of the subject for an object or a category of selected objects, whence the well-known adage: De gustibus non disputandum est. The third refers to a truly social dimension: here taste signifies a preference specific to a certain group, or a more widespread collective tendancy (eg. the tastes of a certain period or social class). Our hypothesis is that we can create a link between the various nuances, all of which are useful from the point of view of semiotic research" (Grignaffini, 1998:29). In accordance with his object, the semiotician nalyses both the distance between and the interaction between the the aesthetic dimension of taste (linked to perception) and its cognitive dimension in terms of value and categorisation). Any professional procedure should take into account the difficulty (or potentially rich challenge), represented by the form and global image of taste.


In society, a taste for food represents a certain familiar competence, both practical (hygiene, health, discrimination) and symbolic (self-image and world-image), no less complex than the processes of communication and signification which give taste its semiotic identity.

Borrowing the expression from marketing, taste’s "mix" (ie the sum of its marketing, communicative and creative elements) leads to a multi-sensory analytic approach to the problem. In the alimentary context this "is represented by one of the sensory modes: taste. But in reality the tasting of a foodstuff involves many other sensory modes than taste alone: smell, thermal sensation, buccal stereognosis (ie the perception of volume in the mouth), perception of texture, sound, sight, not to mention other sensations such as spiciness or bitterness. Each of these modes acts as an information source concerning the food. But rather than by taking this information in isolation, it is by taking all of the factors together that we may proceed to characterize the foodstuff. The result, called synesthesia, is more than the mere sum of the sensory inputs." (Chiva, 1996).

To tackle the question of taste, of taste sensation, is to place oneself at the centre of the sensory experience, open to its most radical manifestations. Taste creates a multitude of signs, stemming from the interplay of coenesthesis, (internal organic sensations), full of meaning but hard to express (and in the domain of the natural sciences), and synesthesia, (sensory correspondances), visible or communicable but complex (in the domain of the human sciences where a combination of forms, colours, textures, etc. go to make up an "image" of taste, or an evaluation of its sapid value). The richness of this field results from an interaction between the various types of sensory input.



In this complex (multi-modal) system of perception, the synesthesic experience of taste involves, over and above its sensory reception, the sum of the subject’s experiences, making the link between the sensory world, and the world of affected or socialised consummation. The memory has a role to play here, recalling both somatic experiences and contextual encounters which leave aesthetic (sensory), pathetic (emotional) and cognitive (informational) traces. Relations between the senses and signification are constructed around the taste of the foodstuff; linked to the subject, his self-image and his social competence, depending on the values, norms and representations that the specific taste evokes. Organic sensations, established social modes of perception and social reception are all closely linked.

This systematic Taste Image is an essential base for the semiotic approach. It is not constructed from the elementary relations between the four poles of flavour (sweet, sour, acid, bitter), rather it works by contrasting four elemental poles in the systematic recognition of taste (Figure 1).

Such a representation clearly illustrates the usefulness of an analysis of the signification of taste. Firstly it is important to separate the physiological or organic from the symbolic: thus the contrast organoleptic (based on the four flavours and sensory input) vs idealistic (working from concepts and images both dependant and independant of cultural prejudices).

These base positions generate an equally productive contrast between the referential (associatory, classificatory) value and the hedonistic value (pleasure taken in eating, preferences). The referential and organoleptic positions are complemenary in that they both deal with the taste of a foodstuff (ability to recognise), whereas the hedonistic and idealistic positions are concerned with the subjects own taste for a foodstuff (ability to discriminate). These elementary positions define the basic forces involved in taste expression , and at the same time allude to the network of global forces which make taste a systematic and synesthesic object, with the importance of this interpretation in nutritional representations and practices.


As we have seen, the semiotician’s area of interest lies in the relationship between flavour and value, and in the definition of a system of representation of the synesthesic and "dramatised" (Corbeau) Taste Image. From the elementary base of the four flavours (sweet, sour, acid, bitter) and the physiological properties of a foodstuff’s sensory image, a series of links and oppositons provokes the construction of taste as an object with signification, the image of which we have already seen.

In this system, the links between the object and its taste include the sensory and mnemonic imprint of flavour; and the elements of the subject’s experience regarding the object. The sum of the various (unlinked) images and representations in the subject’s memory are recalled (cf Proust’s famous Magdalen), provoking a proprioceptive return to the self, through the recognition of a taste. Links are further established between all those who recognise that they possess the same (good) taste, and it is through the sum of these various links that the axiological value of taste is defined.

By contrast, on a symbolic level (in its semiotic or sociological sense) taste functions quite apart from the object in question, relying on social rites at table to create the appropriate ceremonial conditions for the subtleties of the object to be fully appreciated. Tasting therefore involves mastery of both one’s own sensory faculties, and one’s social environment, along with a mastery of one’s relations with the object, determined by one’s experiences with it via the various communicative channels.

Whether we are talking about a certain dish, the presentation of a foodstuff in a promotional sales context, or its representation by the media, it is evident that the reaction provoked will be context dependant, and that correspondingly one sense will be privileged at the expense of the others. Through direct contact with the foodstuff (or not) we can stress highlight the sight, touch, or smell, etc. The interest of the semiotician, however, transcends this; it lies in the Taste Image, which takes into account the totality of its signification.

Between subject and object, flavour and value, the Taste Image invests the alimentary object with values, associated with the relationship between object and subject, and the indentities invested in the object both on an individual and collective (social) basis. Such a definition leads less to a categorisation of the object (taste categorised as...) than to an interactive relationship between subject and object, leading to the production and acquisition of taste. This process entails various modes of assessment, each employed to a greater or lesser degree depending on the specific object. Moreover, this process may be characterized by reference to schema such as the following figure (Figure 2).



As we can see from this diagram, the alimentary object (form and substance) remains central in the elaboration of the Taste Image: its actual, expected or potential manifestations are basic to the process. We could give the examples of an encounter with a certain object in a commercial situation, in a restaurant, or at a private meal, and specify the various factors determining its reception in each case; what is essential is that the signification of the tasteexperience is always taken in its contextual entirety, ie in the context of the lived process whereby the subject and object define one another, in a tense, even passionate relationship between the self-image and the image of the object. This need to define suggests a willingness to give taste an expressive, creative, narrative or figurative form, a lived identity: to state one’s tastes is to engage oneself. The semitician’s task is to conceive the totality of taste’s signification, despite the fact that he may be pressured, in the course of a specific study of a product or foodstuff, to highlight a certain aspect in the structure of its image.


Despite the extensiveness of the field of taste, defined here according to its synesthesic and systematic properties, it is possible to lay down a plan for professional study. In conclusion, then, we will translate the semiotic schema of taste as an area of professional interest, showing the principal domains of analysis and their corresponding domains of specialisation (Figure 3).

As we can see, all of the circles are inter-connected, illustrating the inter-dependence of the different structural elements of the Taste Image. It is not our aim, here, to list all the different domains of professional study used individually or collectively in semiotic analysis, but a few brief examples may serve as an illustration:

-Synesthesic Semiology : a field halfway between cognitive psychology and semiotics, related to the sciences of taste (physiology and neurobiology); much work remains to be done to establish the procedures surrounding the drawing up of a product’s "sensory map".

-Semiotics of the Object : one of the most worked-on areas of semiotics; the aesthetic and semic analysis of everyday objects has important implications for the food industry.

-Situational and Interactional Semiotics : at first a seemingly pretentious or utopian application of semiotics given the area of study: the role of situation (surroundings) and interaction (cultural and symbolic context) in the act of tasting; this field is nevertheless concerned with the social factors surrounding the subject. It remains too big and ill-defined an area of semiotics. In practice the social context is expressed in the axiological values of the Taste Image; it is implicit in the behavioural signs and practices of the subject in context (whether or not at table, in public or private, and completed or not), and taking into account all of the situational forces and agents present.

-Discursive Semiotics : here again the extensive terminology is combined with methodological complications due to the nature of the field, which can be seen to cover other fields when these are reduced to their discursive forms. Discursive semiotics is evidently concerned largely with communications via the media, advertising, and commercial or promotional strategies; however, outside this immediate domain (but by no means unconnected), professional and technical discourse are of interest to the semiotician, notably when they take on a social role within an institution, thereby changing representations and behaviour.



Thus we have the foundations of several different semiotic approaches, both indicative of the studies presently being undertaken, and the potential professional applications of a semiotics regarding taste. On the professional level, in conclusion, two main areas of activitysould be noted:

-Taste as the subject of complex synesthesic and systemic research, representing a case study, in the broad field of semiotic competence, of the theoretical concepts which have been developed therein, on a pragmatic and constructivist basis. Seen as a product of syncretism of the senses, of meaning, and of the agents (subject and object: image of eater and of food being mutually productive) taste, or rather the construction of the Taste Image, works with reference to a sensory universe, which is always dependant on the subject, and social, cultural and inter-cultural pressures.

-As a field of professional specialisation, the semiotics of taste has huge scope for research into the social communication of taste. In the domains of marketing and communication, if it is unlikely that all profesional activity will be centred around semiotics, it is nevertheless certain that, in what is called in the profession the "mix" of taste, the latter remains an extremely valuable tool, and one whose potential is not yet being fully exploited.


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