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BY ELISSAVETA M. BRANDON6 MINUTE READ
My water bottle is manipulating me. I just filled it up with tap water, so I know for a fact that I’m drinking plain H2O, but against all odds, I’m tasting notes of lemon-basil. That’s because this isn’t a regular water bottle, and while I think I’m tasting lemon-basil, I’m actually smelling it.
Between 75% and 95% of what we taste comes from our sense of smell. That’s why food can taste bland when you have a stuffy nose, or why you can’t recognize the exact flavor of a jelly bean if you pop it in your mouth while pinching your nose. Armed with this knowledge, hydration company Air Up has designed a unique water bottle that uses gently scented pods to fool you into thinking you’re drinking flavored water.
Air Up launched in Germany in 2019, turning profitable in its first two years. Spurred by investors like PepsiCo and Ashton Kutcher, the brand is now launching in the U.S. with 10 flavors, including watermelon, peach, and mango-passion fruit. The design has a few shortcomings, namely the use of nonrecyclable pods that have to be replaced after about seven water bottle refills. But the sensory experience, which continues to baffle me, highlights the tremendous potential for food and beverage containers to tap into our sense of smell.
With millions of odor receptors, the nose plays a key role in how we experience food and drinks. Why aren’t we designing for that?
DECEPTION BY DESIGN
Air Up was born on the premise that the human body craves flavor, and flavor often comes with ingredients that are bad for you. “What if we could create flavor that doesn’t come with all the negative additives,” says Lena Jüngst, a product designer and cofounder of Air Up.
Here’s how it works. When you sip from the bottle’s straw, you suck in water and scented air, which travels to your olfactory center at the back of your mouth, where the brain perceives the scent as flavor. This is known as retronasal flavor perception, and it’s responsible for every single flavor profile that doesn’t fall under the five tastes your tongue can perceive—think sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (which can be tasted on your tongue) versus more complex flavor profiles like chocolaty, floral, fruity, creamy (which are perceived by the nose).
For it to really work, you have to suck on Air Up’s mouthpiece instead of tilting the bottle, which makes for an unusual experience as bubbles end up forming with every sip. To nudge users into using it properly, Jüngst’s team designed the bottle with a dip at the top suggesting the correct angle.
The real trick, however, lies in the ring-shaped pods that lock onto the mouthpiece. Made of plastic (virgin, not recycled) the pods hold a sponge that has been infused with natural flavors. Two tiny holes in the pod allow for air to come in through it, pick up scent molecules inside, and come out through the mouthpiece and into your mouth, where it mixes with the water and triggers your olfactory center into thinking the water is flavored.
The experience is pretty wild; it’s also pretty wasteful. Jüngst says the flavor lasts about 7 liters’ worth, which I found to be true, but since the scent evaporates gradually, the flavor started to disappear somewhere around the fourth or fifth refill for me. (To slow down the evaporation and preserve the flavor longer, you can push down on the pod and block the two holes.) For now, I’ve been stacking my used pods on my desk, but when I eventually toss them in the trash, they’ll likely end up in landfills.
“We need to keep the flavor inside the pod, so that’s why we haven’t moved to a compostable material,” Jüngst says, noting the team is working on a recyclable version.
The price is another potential sore spot. A starter kit, with a bottle and three flavor pods, starts at $39.99, then the pods will be sold in packs of three, ranging from $7.99 to $12.99 depending on the flavors. Arguably, you could get yourself one of the countless infusion water bottles available on the market, cut up your own lemon, peach, or mango to pop inside it, and call it a day. But you’d have to wait a few hours for the flavor to infuse in the water—and you’d have to have some fruit in your fridge.
For Jüngst, the product is only scratching the surface. She claims Air Up could also open possibilities for people with allergies who would be able to perceive flavors without the negative consequences. It can also introduce an array of flavors we can’t actually taste in the real world, like “summer rain,” “freshly cut grass,” and more experimental options like “snake poison,” she jokes.
EXPERIMENTING WITH SCENT
The experimental side of the product is exactly what attracted me to it. If a product can convince my brain that I’m tasting something I’m not, what does that mean for the way we design plates, glasses, and utensils? According to Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford who has written about olfactory dining and the multisensory experience of food, the general idea behind Air Up has been fairly common in the world of fine dining but has yet to percolate into consumer products.
Historically, European restaurants used cloches to help dishes retain heat on their way from the kitchen to the table, but according to Spence, they also played an important role in trapping aromas from the dish until the very last moment. Today, the cloche has fallen out of fashion, but chefs, culinary artists, and designers have been using scent to enhance the dining experience in various other ways, from charred plates, to cutlery with a clip for fresh herbs, to fragrant dry ice infused with a hint of saffron or truffle, which would be prohibitively expensive if used in larger amounts.
In many of these cases, however, the scent has been used to augment existing flavors, whereas Air Up induces flavor where there isn’t any in the first place. Spence remembers only one other product with similar intentions. The Right Cup, which launched in 2015 and appears to no longer be sold online, is a fruit-flavored cup that uses scented lids and color psychology to trick you into thinking you’re drinking orange-flavored water in an orange cup. I haven’t tried it, but Spence says “it tastes like synthetic.”
Air Up doesn’t taste artificial at all, but Spence suspects that sooner or later the brain might realize there are no benefits to scent-flavored water—no sugar rush, no vitamin C—and stop liking it. (For people who don’t like plain water, though, the added scents could encourage them to drink more of it.) In the same vein, he says people with food allergies are so conditioned to “not go near that thing” that those psychological associations may be tough to combat.
I’ve only been using Air Up for two weeks, so it’s too early to say whether my brain will eventually catch up. But Spence says designers should be taking note.
“If we accept the claim that 75% to 95% of what we think we taste we’re actually smelling, then so many of our drinking interactions are so very badly designed,” he says, referencing lids that prevent us from inhaling the aroma of coffee, or, say, the tiny opening in a can of Bubly. “I certainly believe we should be doing a lot more to enhance the smell component of things.”