Why A Strawberry Smells Like A Strawberry (And More)

It’s strawberry season here at the upper left-hand corner of the USA. This, and a recent report regarding the biosynthesis of the chemical that is chiefly responsible for the strawberry flavor (see Ref. 1 below), got me thinking about why they taste so good.

Strawberries emit several hundred volatile organic chemicals, of which only about a dozen truly contribute to our aroma perception of the ripe fruit.

The most significant of these aroma components is Furaneol (4-hydroxy-2,5-dimethyl-3(2H)-furanone). This is because of its relatively high concentration in strawberries and also because of its “low odor threshold”, that is, we can smell concentrations as little as only 10 parts per billion.

Since your tongue can only sense five different flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (savory), it’s the olfactory sensors in your nose that chiefly conveys to you the flavor of strawberries. (Indeed, humans may be able to distinguish thousands of different smells even though we have fewer olfactory genes than most other mammals – see Ref. 2 below).

Do plants have an olfactory system? In a sense, the answer is yes. Since plants can respond to external volatile chemicals, they must have receptors for these compounds. An interesting question is: are these volatile chemical receptors in plants similar to the chemical receptors in your nose? (This looks like an interesting subject to explore… another time.)

Online Resources: Furaneol
See and rotate in 3D the structure of Furaneol here (Please note: you need to have Java installed on your computer.)

Everything you ever wanted to know about strawberries can be found in: The Strawberry: History, Breeding and Physiology

Why are wild strawberries usually “tastier” than domestic strawberries? Answers can be found here: What’s in your strawberries?

Why store-bought strawberries aren’t as tasty as they used to be? – Bigger, Blander, Blegh: Why Are Strawberries Worse?

1. Schiefner, A., Q. Sinz, I. Neumaier, W. Schwab, and A. Skerra (2013) “Structural basis for the enzymatic formation of the key strawberry flavor compound 4-hydroxy-2,5-dimethyl-3(2H)-furanone.” Journal of Biological Chemistry, published on April 15, 2013 as manuscript M113.453852. (Abstract)

2. Shepard, G. (2004) “The human sense of smell: are we better than we think?” PLoS Biology, Vol. 2, e146. (Full Text)

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