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Flavor Wheels of the World

As you (Bob) of course know, we have terrible problems we have when we try to describe smells and tastes. We can describe colors. That is, we can splop down samples of color on paper, and label them. Not only will most people be able to learn the labels and then agree on the colors, but most people will agree that those are representative colors. A pure saturated blue looks pure and saturated to everyone. Other blues are perceived as impure, partial, or kind-of blues. (Obviously I'm excepting people with vision or color-vision impairments -- that's a small minority, and we consider it impairment, right?) So we can describe colors with conviction. But when you want to describe a visual image, of course, there's a lot more going on than color. We fall back on analogies, references, and partial description: it's a giant black three-headed dog with slavering fangs. Describing sound is similar. We think of sounds as being classified by pitch, because pitch is easy to measure and has an objective physical basis (frequency). But pitch isn't actually that important in everyday life. Most people don't have perfect pitch. Even relative pitch (the ability to identify intervals) is not important, unless you're a musician or a birdwatcher. We describe sounds by analogy or reference, just like scenes: it's a loud metallic honking, like a pissed-off brass goose. (Okay, maybe not a brass goose.) Describing tastes has always been a fuzzier proposition, and it's not because taste has more dimensions than color or pitch. As I say above, that's a false analogy: vision and hearing have more dimensions than color and pitch! I think taste is fuzzier because we can discriminate lots of tastes -- they vary much more than sounds, I'd say. (Or perhaps sound varies more, but we're willing to tolerate more slop in describing sounds. There are many brassy honks, but if you imagine something even remotely brassy and honking, then my description was good enough. Whereas people are very picky about flavors.) Images vary even more, but we are exposed to lots and lots of images, so we have more exemplars to make descriptions from. We give children books full of animal pictures. But it's perfectly possible to grow up without ever tasting asafoetida, and if you do, what am I going to compare it to? It isn't like anything but itself.

Taste vs Smell
Let me cut off your first comment by saying yes, taste and smell are distinct. And taste is very easy to describe, because there are just five tastes. (Salty, bitter, sour, sweet, umami. If you haven't heard of umami, go look it up. It's what meat and MSG taste like.)

However, when you're describing food and drink, taste and smell are always going to be intermixed. So the fact that taste is simple doesn't get you anywhere. I'll try to talk about "flavor", meaning the joint effect of a food's taste and smell. If I forget, don't stress about it.

Wheels
To fulfil the lack of descriptive clarity, people have started inventing "flavor wheels", in analogy to color and pitch wheels. It isn't a great analogy, because color and pitch both form repeating cycles, for underlying physical reasons. (Completely different reasons for color and pitch, by the way. But I won't get into that now.) Flavors don't even form a linear scale, much less one whose end matches its beginning. Fortunately, the weakness of the analogy doesn't stop people from trying. The results are interesting. Even if they aren't wheels in the sense of the color wheel, they're organized hierarchical categories of flavor. They're usually labelled by reference, so you can either identify the categories from your own experience, or go out and find some examples. On the other hand, none of these wheels are complete. A color wheel encompasses all pure colors (and can be extended to a 3-D solid that encompasses all colors). A pitch wheel encompasses all pitches in an octave (and if you categorize all D-flats together, the wheel encompasses all pitches). But I haven't seen a wheel which claims to describe all flavors. Which is fine, really. The ones I've seen are for specific purposes: a chocolate flavor wheel, a coffee flavor wheel, a wine flavor wheel. The idea is to cover the flavors you're likely to find in a particular food. And each one was built by an expert in that food -- which is nice, because you can assume that the expert has tried many different varieties of that food. So you have some reason to believe that the wheel is complete, in its domain.

And Now, the Examples


The actual point of this page is to gather as many flavor wheels as I can find into one place. To avoid copyright issues (and because HTML doesn't do circles), I'm going to replicate them here as vertical tables, rather than wheels. This should be okay -- as I said, the ones I've found aren't very wheel-like to begin with. My secret agenda is to see if there's an objective ordering, or even a hint of one, which can be applied to flavors. I figure that if a bunch of different wheels agree in some way, we'll have discovered something.

The Devil's Flavor Wheel


I'll start with one I found in a clipping from Perfumer and Flavorist magazine. Here is a table of bad flavors. Dirty Fecal Gassy Farty Eggy

Acrid Sickly Ammoniacal Urine Burnt Biscuity Acidic Meaty Smoky Sulphurous Cheesy Fishy Cabbage Sweet Onion, Garlic Reference:

David Rowe, "High Impact Aroma Chemicals part 2", Perfumer and Flavorist, vol. 27, Jul/Aug 2002, p24: part 1 part 2 (PDF)

You can see that context is important. Taken out of context, we don't think of "cabbage" or "meaty" or "sweet" as bad aromas -- unless you dislike cabbage, meat, or cotton candy. This article is written from the point of view of the aroma chemicals industry. (Don't blame me, they call themselves that.) They're trying to make things smell nice, and most people don't want cabbage shampoo. The organization of the wheel brings some similar aromas together. ("Fecal" is near "farty"; "urine" is adjacent to "ammonia", which is a component of urine. The aromas that can convey appetizing foods are clustered together.) On the other hand, I don't think I've severed an important link by cutting the wheel between "onion" and "dirty". In fact, you may think I've improved its accuracy: the appetizing flavors are far away from shit. In the original wheel, "onion" was right next to "dirty" and "fecal". The article also had a wheel for positive aromas, but I think I'll get back to it at the end.

The Beer Flavor Wheel


I don't drink beer, so I am (ignorantly) boggled at the list of characteristics beer-drinkers talk about. One article divides the perception of beer into "appearance, aroma, and taste" -- and then divides each of these into subcategories, so that (for example) the smell of the beer is made up of "aroma, bouquet, and odor". The taste includes "mouthfeel, flavor, and finish" -where mouthfeel actually includes qualities of touch and texture (viscosity, carbonation, the warm sensation of absorbed alcohol).

The flavor wheel beer-drinkers use was developed by Morton Meilgaard. It includes all of the above qualities, which I guess makes it an aroma/taste/tactile wheel. Alcoholic Solvent-like (plastic, can-liner, lacquer) Estery (banana, apple, fruity) Aromatic, Fragrant, Fruity (citrus, berry, melon, ...) Fruity, Floral Acetaldehyde (fresh cut green apples) Floral (roses, geranium, perfume) Hoppy Resinous (sawdust, resin, cedar, pine, spruce) Resinous, Nutty, Nutty (sherry-like: walnut, coconut, beans, almond) Green, Grassy Grassy (fresh-cut grass, straw) Grainy (raw grain: husk-like, corn grits, flour) Cereal Malty Worty (fresh-wort aroma) Caramel (burnt-sugar: toffee, molasses, licorice) Caramelized, Roasted Burnt (burnt-bread) Phenolic Phenolic (tarry, bakelite, carbolic, pharmaceutical) Fatty Acid (tallowy, goaty, cheesy, rancid butter) Soapy, Fatty, Diacetyl (buttermilk, butterscotch) Diacetyl, Oily, Rancid (rancid oil) Rancid Oily (vegetable oil, gasoline, machine oil) Sulfury (rotten egg) Sulfitic (burnt-match, choking, burnt rubber) Sulfury Sulfidic (sewage, natural gas) Cooked Veg. (overcooked greens, cooked corn) Yeasty (fresh yeast, meaty) Stale (old beer) Catty (skunky beer) Oxidized, Stale, Papery (cardboard) Musty Leathery Moldy (earthy, musty) Acidic (pungent, sharp) Sour, Acidic Acetic (vinegar) Sour (lactic, sour milk) Sweet Sweet (syrupy) Salty Salty Bitter Bitter (harsh, dry) Alkaline Mouthfeel Mouthcoating (creamy) feel

feel

odor

feel

feel

taste

feel

Fullness References:

Metallic (coins, iron, rusty water, tinny) Astringent (mouth-puckering, tannin-like, tart) Powdery (dusty, chalky, particulate) Carbonation (flat/undercarbonated, gassy/overcarbonated) Warming (alcoholic) Body (watery, characterless, satiating, thick)

odor odor

odor

Beer Flavor Log, Rich Webb (broken down into even finer subcategories) Tasting Beer (shows wheel layout)

As you might expect, the chart can plausibly be divided into "smell", "taste", and "texture" -although there's an overlap between smell and taste, and no pure textures. The aromas are arranged roughly from pleasant, light odors through darker ones to the nasty ones. However, there are still a lot of arbitrary choices. Meilgaard has tried to make it more of a cycle by having the smells run into the tastes, and putting the "alkaline" end of the texture group next to the "bitter" end of the taste group. (Alkalis taste bitter and feel soapy.) Nonetheless, I'd say this chart has more value as a hierarchy than as a wheel.

The Wine Aroma Wheel


Linalool Orange blossom Rose Violet Geranium Cloves Black pepper Licorice, anise Grapefruit Lemon Blackberry Raspberry Strawberry Black currant/cassis Cherry Apricot Peach Apple Pineapple

Floral

Floral

bouquet

Spicy

Spicy

Citrus

Berry Fruity

Tree Fruit

Tropical Fruit

bouquet

Vegetative

Nutty

Caramelized

Woody

Earthy

Melon Banana Strawberry jam Raisin Dried Fruit Prune Fig Artificial fruit Other Methyl anthranilate Stemmy Cut green grass Fresh Bell pepper Eucalyptus Mint Green beans Asparagus Canned/Cooked Green olive Black olive Artichoke Hay/straw Dried Tea Tobacco Walnut Nutty Hazelnut Almond Honey Butterscotch Butter/diacetyl Caramelized Soy sauce Chocolate Molasses Phenolic Phenolic Vanilla Cedar Resinous Oak Smoky Burned Burnt toast/charred Coffee Dusty Earthy Mushroom Musty/mildew Moldy Moldy cork

bouquet

bad

Petroleum

Sulfur

Chemical

Papery

Pungent

Other

Pungent Oxidized

Hot Cool Oxidized Yeasty

Microbiological Lactic

Other References:

Tar Plastic Kerosene Diesel Rubbery Hydrogen sulfide Mercaptan Garlic Skunk Cabbage Burnt match Sulfur dioxide Wet dog Filter pad Cardboard Ethyl acetate Acetic acid Ethanol Sulfur dioxide Fishy Soapy Sorbate Fusel alcohol Alcohol Menthol Acetylaldehyde/sherry Flor yeast Leesy Sauerkraut Butyric acid Sweaty Lactic acid Horsey Mousey

Wine Aroma Wheel, developed by A. C. Noble. PDF version, via the American Wine Society.

I don't drink wine. This was the first flavor wheel I saw, though, so I think of it as the archetypical one. It dates to 1987, which may make it the first detailed flavor wheel to be invented. Although I don't actually have any evidence for that claim. Ignore it.

(Late update: I am told that the beer wheel dates back to the late 70's, if not earlier.) This wheel solely considers aroma -- in fact, the creator's web page talks about making samples that are only sniffed, not tasted. The ranges marked "bouquet" are apparently the ones usually associated with wine; wacky varietals can span the entire non-nasty side of the wheel. The chart has the light/dark/nasty sequence which we saw in the beer chart, and which we will see again. I couldn't find a point on the wheel which was unarguably the "top", so I split it between the nasty aromas and the light (floral/spicy) ones. "Microbiological" and "Floral" don't seem to be related, so I don't think I did the chart any harm. The fact that "Microbiological" (and "Chemical") have "Other" subcategories indicates that the cyclical nature of the chart is not very complete. Yes, sulfur dioxide is on there twice. I don't know why. But you can't argue with an aroma wheel that include "Wet dog".

The Coffee Flavor Wheel


I don't drink coffee either. Come to think of it, I don't eat any of these foods that get fancy flavor charts -- except chocolate. Okay, and maple syrup. We'll get to those. Jasmine Floral Wintergreen Flowery Cardamon, Caraway Fragrant Sweet Basil, Anise Lemon Citrus Tangerine Enzymatic Fruity Raspberry Berry-like Blackberry Onion Alliaceous Garlic Herby Cabbage Leguminous Alfalfa Aromas Peanut Nut-like Almond Nutty Corn Malt-like Barley Toffee Candy-like Pralines Sugar Browning Carmelly Honey Syrup-like Molasses Bakers Chocolate-like Dutch Chocolatey Swiss Vanilla-like Custard

Turpeny Resinous Medicinal Warming Dry Distillation Spicy Pungent Smoky Carbony Ashy Pungent Bitter Harsh Sharp Salt Bland Tastes Mellow Sweet Acidy Winey Sour Soury References:

Piney Balsamic Camphoric Cineolic Nutmeg Pepper Clove Thyme Tarry Tobaccoey Burnt Charred

Creosol Phenolic Caustic Alkaline Astringent Rough Neutral Soft Delicate Mild Nippy Piquant Tangy Tart Hard Acrid

Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, via Sweet Maria's. Poster of this flavor wheel, via Sweet Maria's or Specialty Coffee Association of America (commercial product)

I'd be more impressed with this massive chart if I didn't think it was massively warped in favor of symmetry. They've divided everything into equal numbers of examples, no matter how much variety a given region might have. I mean, "vanilla/swiss" versus "vanilla/custard"? In the same amount of space that they've spent on all the nuts? They've made a token effort to put the herbs oppsite the dark burnt flavors, but this chart has essentially no wheel-nature. "Tastes" and "aromas" take up equal sides of the wheel (although my chart representation doesn't do that), apparently for no reason but visual balance.

The "Tastes" side is ordered completely at random, and even the subcategories make no sense. (Why are there "bland" and "sharp" varieties of "salt", but not of the other tastes? Why have a section for "astringent", which apparently means "salty and bitter", but not for any other taste combination involving salt? The four -- or five -- tastes combine equally, not in a sequence.) Many words, but no interesting organization. Strangely, when I ordered the poster from Sweet Maria's, it differed from the wheel linked on their web site. The categories were the same, but the last (detailed) column on the "Aromas" side was very different: Coffee Blossom Tea Rose Flowery Cardamon, Caraway Fragrant Coriander Seeds Lemon Citrus Apple Enzymatic Fruity Apricot Berry-like Blackberry Onion Alliaceous Garlic Herby Cucumber Leguminous Garden Peas Roasted Peanuts Nut-like Walnuts Nutty Balsamic Rice Malt-like Aromas Toast Roasted Hazelnut Candy-like Roasted Almond Sugar Browning Carmelly Honey Syrup-like Maple Syrup Bakers Chocolate-like Dark Chocolate Chocolatey Swiss Vanilla-like Butter Piney Turpeny Black Currant-Like Resinous Camphoric Medicinal Dry Distillation Cineolic Cedar Warming Spicy Pepper Pungent Clove Floral

Smoky Carbony Ashy

Thyme Tarry Pipe Tobacco Burnt Charred

I think this latter version is obsolete -- the current SCAA web store shows an image of the first chart. (I suppose I should order another chart from the SCAA and see what I get. I haven't done this yet.) The first one is certainly more regular: it has "lemon, tangerine" as examples of "citrus", instead of "lemon, apple". And it's more familiar: I don't have a clue what "balsamic rice" is. But I have to wonder if the regularity and familiarity, like the symmetry, was put in form's sake rather than to express actual sensory qualities. Whoever put "apple" under "citrus" the first time must have been thinking something. It might have been a mistake, but at least I know they weren't pulling examples from a preconceived "citrus fruit" category.

Wheel of Cheese
Oh, lovely thought. I find web references to a Cheese Flavor Wheel, developed by one MaryAnne Drake. I haven't been able to find the wheel itself, however.

Chocolate Aroma Wheel


Mushroom Raw Coffee Green Tomatoes Truffles Wood Jasmine Orange Blossom Rose Apricot Preserves Currant Preserves Red Berries Orange Dried Fruit Dried Plums Dried Bananas Wild Berries Roasted Almonds Cocoa Caramelized Sugar

Vegetable

Flowery

Fruity

Roasted

Caramel Marzipan Espresso/Coffee Black Tea Cashews Almonds Nutty Hazelnut Macadamia Liquorice Cloves Spicy Cinnamon Oriental Spices Vanilla Beeswax Honey Bread Miscellaneous Cream/Milk Butter Tobacco References:

Chocolate Aroma Wheel, via Felchlin.

Not much to report here; it's a simple hierarchy. Not a wheel in any sense. (You don't get to call it a wheel if you have "Miscellaneous" as one point on your cycle.) The categories are very broad, and while the examples are presumably appropriate for chocolate, they come off as pretty arbitrary. (Marzipan is just almonds and sugar. Caramel is caramelized sugar with cream or butter. Why do these get separate entries? If those combinations are supposed to form new unique aromas, doesn't that throw into question the whole idea of a spectral breakdown of flavors? Oh well.)

Flavor Wheel for Maple Products


Cloves Cinnamon Anise, black liquorice Nuts (Bitter almond, hazelnut) Fruits with pits or seeds Flowers Honey Peach, Apple Baked Apple Citrus fruits (orange, orange peel)

Spicy

Fruity

Floral

Light

Medium Empyreumatic

Strong

Milky Vanilla

Fresh Heated Vanilla Light Medium

Confectionery Strong

Maple

Maple

Plant (Woody)

Ligneous

Plant (Vegetable)

Humus, Forest Cereals Fresh herbs

Plant (Herbaceous) Dry herbs Solvents Soap and detergents Plastics and wrapping Petroleum and derivatives Foreign (Environment) Mineral, water Enclosed (dry) dust Cardboard Metal Drugs and drugstore

Golden sugar Chicory, toast Caramelized sugar Burnt wood, ground brown coffee Brown coffee bean, chocolate Burnt sugar Ground black coffee Black coffee bean Smoked Butter, cream, milk Butter, milk Marshmallow Vanilla pod White sugar Corn syrup Light brown sugar Dark brown sugar Molasses Sponge toffee Maple Roasted dandelion root Firewood, wet wood Sawdust Softwood (pine, juniper, cedar, etc) Mushroom Mold, Potato Malt, Oats, Wheat, Rye Stem, grassy Shoot, bud Crushed leaves Nutshells Dry herbs, hay

Sulphured (burnt sulphur) Rancidity (rancid grease) Foreign (Deterioration) Confined humidity (soiled mop) Carbon dioxide Fermentation (vinegar, yeast) References:

Flavor Wheel for Maple Products, via Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Everyone has to get into the act. Now it's maple syrup. When I transcribed this chart, I started on the right side, instead of the top (as I do for most of the wheels on this page). If I'd started at the top, I would have split "Vanilla" from "Milky", which seemed wrong. Again, most of the wheels I've found start with herb/fruit/spice, so I used that as the default cut point. I also went counterclockwise, since that's the way the wheel was printed, and it was the only way to preserve the light/medium/dark orderings. Interestingly, the text chart printed below the wheel (on the AAFC web page) shows the categories clockwise, but the entries in each categories counter-clockwise! This implies that even the creators don't think of the wheel as a true circle -- jumping back and forth around the perimeter doesn't bother them. On the other hand, the categories do cluster to some extent. "Vanilla" does belong near "Milky"; "Floral" and "Fruity" and "Spicy" belong together. And of course several of the categories ("Empyreumatic", "Confectionery") have a logical internal order. So it's not just a totally unordered hierarchy. Back on the first hand, I'll note that "Foreign Environmental" and "Foreign Deterioration" are together -- but this is really a matter of grouping everything bad and dividing the badness by origin. It doesn't imply that the bad flavors are similar to each other. You actually get more of a wheel if you snip out the nasty flavors entirely. Then "Herbaceous" is adjacent to "Spicy", and you have a decent light/dark/light progression. (In case you were wondering, "Empyreumatic" refers to substances produced when organic matter is broken down by heat.) Oh, and what is it the maple industry isn't telling me about roasted dandelion root?

General Flavors
Back to the second wheel I promised you from Perfumer and Flavorist magazine. Green, Grassy Fruity, Ester-like Citrus, Terpenic Minty, Camphoraceous

Floral, Sweet Spicy, Herbaceous Woody, Smoky Roasty, Burnt Caramel, Nutty Bouillon, HVP Meaty, Animalic Fatty, Rancid Sulfurous, Alliaceous Mushroom, Earthy Celery, Soupy Dairy, Buttery Reference:

David Rowe, "High Impact Aroma Chemicals part 1", Perfumer and Flavorist, vol. 25, num. 5, Sept/Oct 2000, p1: reprint (PDF) David Rowe, "High Impact Aroma Chemicals part 2", Perfumer and Flavorist, vol. 27, Jul/Aug 2002, p24: part 1 part 2 (PDF)

This is given as a "traditional" flavor wheel -- their quotes. Unfortunately, the article promptly drops this chart and focusses instead on a "high-impact" flavor wheel. The article is about "high-impact aromas": Rowe defines these as chemicals which are easy to smell in small quantities, distinctive, attractive, easy to synthesize, not too expensive, and stable in products. These distinctions are obviously important to flavor chemists, but not very significant to us mere sniffers. Some of the categories above don't have high-impact chemicals, and others ("Mint") are apparently too easy for chemists to bother with. So he stretches and shrinks and cuts and tucks and comes up with this: Green, Grassy Herbaceous Spicy Fruity, Ester-like fresh Tropical sweet Blackcurrant, Cassis coffee Vegetable Nutty Caramel Smoky coffee Burnt, Roasted savory cooked roast beef Beefy Pork, Lamb, Chicken Savory, Bouillion Fatty

Rancid, Cheesy Mushroom, Earthy Truffle Garlic Onion

coffee fresh

Why do I bother with the "high-impact" wheel, if its categories are only interesting to flavor chemists? Well, because Rowe talks more about it. Also, he seems to have reordered the wheel into a more consistent form, and he actually provides some evidence for that order. The chart has a reasonable progression around the wheel. As the article notes, the early range is "sweet", and then it hits "savory" -- but those ranges overlap somewhat. The wheel can also be divided into "fresh" flavors (those produced by living plants) and "cooked" ones (those produced by Maillard reactions when foods are heated. Not just boiled, mind you, but goldenbrown-and-delicious stuff.) So we have at least a four-node cycle: sweet/fresh, sweet/savory/cooked, savory/cooked, savory/fresh. The elements in each range are ordered with some logic. For example, the savory/cooked entries go from "burnt" (which is near "smoky" in the previous range) down through "beefy" (a heavy aroma), through lighter meats, through "fatty" (which is a component of meat) to "cheesy" (which has fat, but is not meaty). The article also provides spectrographs, as it were: a range of flavors touched by a particular food. Roast beef covers a solid arc of the wheel, which is a good sign -- it indicates that the wheel is clustering flavors which belong together. Coffee also covers an arc, but has some outlying elements. (The article also mentions chocolate, but the on-line version I am looking at is missing that page! The Mystery of Chocolate remains opaque.)

What Do We Conclude?
Noses are complicated. Right. Looking at all of these wheels, can we come up with a "true" overall spectrum for flavors? Everyone agrees that flowers, fruits, and herbs go together. Everyone agrees that nuts, fats, meats, and cooked foods (the products of heat reactions) go together. Bad smells (which are generally either the products of decay, or completely non-food chemicals) can safely be put together, although more because they're all bad than because they're similar. Decay and earthy flavors are often put near the dark roasted ones. When you try to zoom in, the details get fuzzy very quickly. Flowers, fruits, and spices get listed in every conceivable order. When people add green (vegetable) aromas and nutty aromas, those too show up in many different relative positions.

Within a category -- say, fruits, or nuts -- ordering is essentially arbitrary. People like to list the same examples (citrus, apricot, blackcurrant, berries), so these are obviously distinctive flavors, but they get arranged any way you can think of. I can't say much about meaty and cheesy aromas, because most of these wheels are for products that don't have them. They're associated with fats and cooked aromas, which is no surprise (what with the whole "cooking meat" idea that we've become so attached to the past ten thousand years.) Nobody even wants to talk about fish. And yet, despite the non-cyclicalness of all these charts, they're much cooler as wheels than as vertical charts. My copies on this page are boring. I've got a couple of the wheel posters hanging in my kitchen, and they look great. Therefore, people will keep making them, whether they're justified or not. In the end, the savory/sweet fresh/cooked cycle -- the last one shown above -- is the closest thing we've got to a consistent, universal organization. Treasure it and enjoy it. I've spent three thousand words and a fair amount of table-generation code demonstrating that nobody has anything else to say about flavor wheels. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have. If not, then at least you have references to all these wheels in once place -- which was my other goal.

Last updated November 24, 2004. My Periodic Table of Dessert, a silly and not-really-cyclical chart Zarfhome (map) (down)