Coffee & Health
Coffee and the senses

Experts Explore the Multisensory Science of Coffee

November 24, 2015

ISIC invites Oxford Professor and award-winning barista to share the latest research on how the sensory experience of coffee affects the brain.

Coffee is one of the world’s most recognised and enjoyed tastes and aromas, but what exactly happens to the brain when we sense coffee? The Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC), a not-for-profit organisation devoted to the study and disclosure of science related to coffee and health, has explored the sensory experience of coffee and its impact on the brain in a vodcast with Professor Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist and Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory based at the University of Oxford, and Charlene De Buysere, a world champion barista.

Drinking coffee provides a multisensory experience influenced not only by the type of coffee and preparation method, but by the environment in which it is consumed – even the colour of the mug1. The new vodcast, hosted on ISIC’s website, sees Prof Charles Spence explain how the experience of coffee might even start upon hearing the sound of a coffee machine2.

Sensory analysis is a science which allows us to analyse the impact of coffee on the human senses. Charlene De Buysere added: “The sensory profile of a cup of coffee varies according to the type and blend of coffee beans used, their geographical source, roasting method and preparation – all of which impact experience. For example, the level of roasting impacts aroma profiles and experts are able to differentiate between lighter roasts which can preserve herb and fruit notes, whilst darker roasts increase smoky and burnt aromas.”

Did you know…?


  • Initially, aroma is sensed in the nose when we sniff (orthonasally), but also retronasally at the back of our mouth when we swallow3.
  • Approximately 850 volatile compounds have been identified that are associated with flavour in coffee. Research suggests a small proportion of these (around 40 volatile compounds) contribute to its unique aroma4.


  • Adding milk or sugar to coffee will alter the flavour profile5. If adding milk to a coffee, low-fat milk with smaller globules will better preserve a more intense coffee flavour than whole milk6.


  • The colour of the cup can impact the perception of taste.  For example, one study suggests the use of a white mug enhances the rating of intensity of a cup of coffee, and it was described as less sweet compared to coffee served in a transparent or a blue mug1.
  • Another study on latte art revealed that an angular shape, relative to a more rounded shape, influenced people’s expectations concerning the likability, bitterness and quality of the drink7.

Physiological Effect

  • Aroma is often associated with emotions or memories – therefore the smell of coffee may remind you of feelings from other coffee moments such as relaxation or perhaps alertness8.
  • Further research is needed to determine whether the aroma of coffee alone is enough to enhance alertness in the morning or if this effect results from connections between sensorial experience and emotional memories.
  • Prof Charles Spence comments: “Drinking a cup of coffee without one of the sensorial cues, for example without being able to smell the coffee aroma, will reduce the effect on the other senses and impact our experience and pleasure derived from drinking a cup of coffee. The experience is about much more than the smell or the taste of the coffee in that moment as research suggests that aroma can trigger emotions and evoke memories.”
  • To view the vodcast, click here. To read ISIC’s full topic overview on Coffee and the Senses, click here.


  1. Van Doorn G.H. Wuillemin D. Spence C. (2014) Does the colour of the mug influence the taste of the coffee? Flavour, 3:10
  2. Knöferle K. M. (2012) Using customer insights to improve product sound design. Marketing Review St. Gallen, 29(2), 47-53
  3. Matsuishi M. (2009) Roll of retronasal aroma and orthonasal aroma in palatability of food. Aroma Research, 10(1), 43-45
  4. Belitz H.-D. Grosch W. Schieberle P. (2009) Coffee and Coffee Substitutes ‘Aroma Substances’ in Food Chemistry 4th Revised and extended Edition Springer, Berlin.
  5. Auvray M. Spence C. (2008) The multisensory perception of flavor. Consciousness and Cognition, 17:1016–1031
  6. Bücking M. Steinhart H. (2002) Headspace GC and sensory analysis characterization of the influence of different milk additives on the flavor release of coffee beverages. J Agric Food Chem. 13;50(6):1529-34
  7. Van Doorn G. et al. (2015). Latté art influences both the expected and rated value of milk-based coffee drinks. Journal of Sensory Studies. 30(4): 305–315
  8. Delwiche J. (2004) The impact of perceptual interactions on perceived flavor. Food Quality and Preference, 15: 137–146

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