Flavor is as important for animals as for humans

Dr Medha, Associate Product Manager, Kemin Industries

Flavor or flavour is the sensory impression of a food or other substance and is determined mainly by the chemical senses of taste and smell. The smell is the main determinant of a food item’s flavor. While the taste of food is limited to sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami, and other basic tastes, the smells of food are potentially limitless.

We usually experience that a certain flavor triggers memories of a distinct event or location that we associate with. So why is this? Because that flavor had the power to bring back those emotional memories. That memory may not be just related to taste or smell, but a wholesome experience. That is what makes the flavor important, which drives us to experience the same again. Similarly for animals, flavor plays an integral role in the selection of feedstuffs, as associated with their previous experience and likeliness.

Animal perception and behavior

Neuroscientists have suggested that the close connections of the olfactory bulb with the amygdala (an area in the brain involved in emotional learning), and the hippocampus, (one of the most important brain structures for memory) are the reasons, why the flavor of food has the power to trigger emotional memories. The olfactory receptors located throughout the nose and nasal cavity can really tell the difference between flavor nuances. They collect volatile molecules and send electrical signals to a small structure in the brain called the olfactory bulb.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is a survival advantage as the storage of emotional memories can help to mitigate the risk of consuming poisonous or rancid food. Due to their evolution as prey animals, cattle also have a very acute sense of smell. They can select their feed based on smell and can detect odors many miles away. Therefore, feed palatability influences the preference of an animal for a feed when given the choice and a factor that regulates feed intake.

Cattle are also sensitive to the odors of potential predators, like dogs. In comparison to humans, cattle can detect much smaller differences in odor concentration. Their keen sense of smell is evidenced by the presence of 1,186 olfactory receptor genes compared to 396 in humans.Their sense of taste is well-developed too. They have 25000 taste buds as compared to 9,000 in humans and only 24 in chickens, thereby allowing cattle to have a better response to the feed flavors.


Flavors are usually described as strong-smelling organic compounds with a pleasant odor.Some flavors may make the feed smell attractive, but the overall taste effect can be nothing. Others might have the opposite result, such as a strong sweetener with no aroma at all.

The consistency of quality, the ability to endure processing methods, and the cost-effectiveness of synthetic feed flavors are superior to natural feed flavors. Regardless of the origin, a specific flavor is frequently the result of a complex mixture of chemicals.

The need for animal feed flavors – Why are they so important?

Animal preferences for feed result primarily from the senses of smell and taste. Smell and taste are even more important to young animals, application of suitable flavors in a starter feed to enhance feed palatability, making a smoother transition from weaning. Flavors also have a considerable impact on the attractiveness of feed to animal producers as well. An appealing smell to the animal producer can create positive emotions and a positive perception of the feed.

The overall sense of palatability is important for the following reasons:

Nutritional Wisdom- Sense of smell and flavors act as the first line of defense in selecting food by animal. This helps to avoid toxic and antinutritional substances while eating.

Feeding Response- Initiates and stimulates the feeding response like salivation which further improves appetite.

Post Ingestion Response- Secretion of enzymes for digestion post ingestion taste to motivate next bite of food.

Flavors create a sense of palatability and cattle have a very strong sense of taste and smell and they use them to evaluate desirable meals.  They can easily recognize the change in flavor and are also able to detect odor from up to 6 miles away. They use their strength in multiple ways:

  1. As their defensive strength against any danger or prey
  2. To locate the food
  3. To determine the nutritional value in the feed and choose the best for them
  4. To avoid toxic and anti-nutritional substances in feed to prevent any harm

Unpleasant tastes or odors may lead to low feed intake, thus feed flavors play an important role in maintaining uniformity in the consumption of feed and are used to overcome any unfavorable circumstance. (Cattle avoid mold-infested feed).

The use of feed flavors has been widely accepted, especially in ruminants, for 2 reasons.

  1. The number of taste buds in cattle, for example, is approximately 25,000, and olfactory gene receptors are 1186, thereby allowing cattle to have a better response to the feed flavors.
  2. The prolonged stay of feed in the mouth of the ruminant animal would certainly favor the solubility of flavoring agents, which contributes further to their effect on feed taste in the mouth and hence improves feed intake and animal performance.

Benefits of using animal feed flavors

Flavors associated with the memory are artificially added to feed with the idea of helping recall positive emotional memories associated with feed, which can change behavior and the perception of feed and make it more appealing to livestock. Flavors are used to mask unpleasant flavors to increase feed palatability and increase feed intake, which again can help to increase weight gains and milk yield in animals.

Although improving feed palatability is the main objective of adding flavors to animal feed, it is not the only one. There are other benefits that come along with the use of flavors:

  • Flexibility – for nutritionists and formulators.
  • Improves acceptance of feed and fodder
  • Welfare of animal
  • Increase acceptance of feed by calves


In a nutshell, flavors are versatile additives used to improve the smell and overall palatability of the feed, helping to meet animal needs and productivity objectives of farmers.Flavors can also be added to mineral mixtures, anionic salts or other nutritional solutions which often makes the feed bitter with a resulting decrease in feed intake, incorporation of feed flavors into the diets avoids any such intake problem.