The Science of Taste

This article by David Owen in National Geographic is chock full of interesting tidbits on the science of taste and flavor.  

For example, why many kids hate broccoli?

The aversion to bitter foods is inborn too, she said, and it also has survival value: It helps us avoid ingesting toxins that plants evolved to keep from being eaten—including by us.

The idea that many of us were taught as kids - that there are taste buds on different parts of the tongue that signal different flavors - is flat wrong:

It’s true that in some people the receptors for particular tastes may be more concentrated in certain areas on the tongue, but all of them are found all over, and a Q-tip dipped in lemon juice will seem sour no matter where you dab it. (The receptors sit on the surface of taste cells, which are bundled together in taste buds.)


Although the tongue map doesn’t exist, there may be a taste map in the brain . . .

That is, taste is about more than what hits our tongue.  

Taste receptors alone don’t produce tastes; they have to be connected to taste centers in the brain. In recent decades scientists have discovered receptors identical to some of those on the tongue in other parts of the body, including the pancreas, intestines, lungs, and testes. We don’t “taste” anything with them, but if, for example, we inhale certain undesirable substances, the bitter receptors in our lungs send a signal to our brains, and we cough.

Interestingly, most chefs are taught very little about the science of taste and flavor.

Stuckey teaches a course at the San Francisco Cooking School called “The Fundamentals of Taste.” “Most culinary schools don’t teach students how to taste before they start to cook,” she said. “They jump right in with, like, knife skills. But how can you possibly start an education around food without the building blocks of flavor?” She and her students do an exercise in which they make barbecue sauce. Most of the ingredients she provides are ones you would guess: tomato sauce, tomato paste, sugar, honey, liquid smoke, paprika. But there’s also a tray of ingredients whose predominant taste is bitter: coffee, cocoa, tea, bitters. “It’s not really intuitive, because you don’t think of barbecue sauce as bitter, but if you taste it before and after you add a bitter ingredient, you realize that bitter changes the whole gestalt

All these complex interactions make it tough when we decide to vilify an ingredient - say sugar or fat - because ingredients have complex interactions in term of smell, taste, mouth feel, etc.  In fact,, we can trick our brain into thinking something is sweeter than it actual is:

Bartoshuk told me that increasing the concentration of sweetness-enhancing volatiles in certain foods may make it possible to reduce their sugar content without making them taste less sweet. But she worries about unintended consequences. “As soon as we can produce a sweet experience that has no calories, isn’t toxic, and has no nasty characteristics—what will that mean for the brain?”

The whole thing is interesting.  


(HT Bailey Norwood)