By Kelsey Casselbury 2016-09-09 05:54:17
With few exceptions, we humans take great delight in sugar. Sure, the sweet stuff has a bad rap—it will rot your teeth, it causes weight gain, it makes students all wild and crazy. But if you or your kids have a sweet tooth that you can’t seem to kick, it’s not entirely your “fault”—the desire is inborn. Along the same lines, an aversion to bitter tastes, whether it’s coffee or kale, is biological, too—at one point in human history, that distaste saved humans from ingesting toxins from poisonous, bitter-tasting plants. Therefore, while you might be inclined to trace your repulsion of spinach back to when your mother made you clean your plate or your penchant for ice cream because it’s such a delicious forbidden food, there’s actually quite a bit of biological science working in the background to shape your tastes. Additionally, some tastes literally (not just figuratively) change as we grow up, which is why students really and truly detest many of the same foods that you, too, despised in school—but perhaps now appreciate, if not downright enjoy. There’s also culinary science to consider when it comes to taste. Did you ever consider why chocolate and peanut butter is such a perfect pair? Why peanut butter and jelly just works? Why does the combination of mozzarella and tomato sauce make pizza so darn irresistible? Science, science and science. But it’s not just about how you taste these foods, it’s also how you see, smell, feel and even hear them. Let’s dive deeper. The Science of Taste You probably only think about your taste buds when one becomes inflamed or irritated (whether from accidentally biting your tongue or eating too many salty, spicy or acidic foods), causing you pain. So, you probably didn’t know that there are anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 individual taste buds in your mouth, and they’re located not only on your tongue, but also on the roof and walls of the mouth, throat and esophagus. When you eat food, these taste buds send signals to your brain to register flavor. Each of those taste buds contain taste receptors, cells that are separately dedicated to the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (also referred to as “umami”). Some researchers theorize there’s a sixth taste that registers fat, while studies also are being done on the possible taste perceptions of alkaline (the opposite of sour), metallic and “water-like.” Surprising fact: You know what’s not a taste? Spicy. That’s simply a pain signal sent by nerves to your brain. Speaking of the brain…it plays just as much of a role in your sense of taste as the tongue does. It’s the brain that combines the influences from the other senses—sight, smell, sound and touch—to create an overall edible experience. Whoa, what? It takes all the senses to truly taste food? Sure does. SIGHT. In research studies, people who couldn’t see the food that they were about to eat reported that it tasted blander than if they literally had set their sights on it. In some cases, they couldn’t even properly identify a particular food when they couldn’t see it, such as in the case of fruit juice. In a blind taste-test of apple juice versus cranberry juice, it’s likely that you’re not going to be able to tell which is which—the visual effect of the different colors is that impactful. Similarly, people who are given orange juice that’s been dyed purple are more likely to insist that it’s grape juice. SMELL. According to Food Pairing.com—a website dedicated to explaining just this kind of stuff—80% of your flavor experience is defined by your sense of smell. The rationale behind this is, again, simple biology—when you chew and swallow, food molecules move up behind your palate into your nasal cavity. There, they bind with odor receptors—you have 350 to 400 different types of those—and together these provide you with a sense of flavor. In other words, the nose knows. SOUND. An apple is better when biting into it results in a satisfying crunch. Sparkling water is more refreshing when you can hear the fizz. Potato chips are tastier when they’re crunchy. Those aren’t opinions; they are the conclusions of taste-test research. If a food doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to—if that seltzer is flat or those chips are stale or that apple is mushy—then your brain registers that something isn’t “right,” and, in the end, it simply won’t taste as good to you. TOUCH. In the context of taste science, “touch” reflects texture—or the way the food feels when you’re eating it. Who likes overcooked vegetables? Not many people. But when those same veggies are roasted to a crispy texture or steamed until just slightly crunchy, they’re a lot more palatable. Consider some fatty foods, such as ice cream or creamy salad dressing, that have a particularly satisfying mouthfeel that is hard to replicate in lowfat formulations. If you think about the foods you dislike, chances are you will discover that the way they feel in your mouth is as, well, distasteful, to you as the actual flavors. The Perfect Pair Some foods go together like macaroni and cheese. Or chocolate and peanut butter. Or peanut butter and jelly. (See where we’re going?) These are classic pairings, and generally it’s because the overall sensation of taste is better when the bite is in balance. Macaroni and cheese, for example, works because the al dente bite of the pasta pairs with the creaminess of the cheese for a textural delight. Chocolate and peanut butter (and, for that matter, peanut butter and jelly) combinations play on the classic taste mixture of salty and sweet, which balance each other. There are, too, odder combinations that also work incredibly well, for similar reasons. Less-expected food couplings include: • Peanut butter and Sriracha sauce. This one sounds super-weird, right? Recall if you’ve ever enjoyed a Thai peanut sauce over noodles, and you might reconsider. The slightly smooth, sweet peanut butter tames the heat of the Sriracha, an Asian chile sauce, for a balanced bite. • Champagne and fried food. Whether it’s with fried chicken on a summer’s day or potato latkes during a holiday celebration, this is an adults-only match made in heaven. The fizz cuts through the fatty, salty taste of the fried food…and it just works. • Potato chips and sandwiches. This one is all about texture. When you have soft bread, deli meat and cheese, you need something to crunch. Add a layer of potato chips, and you’ve got it. To create a well-balanced recipe, notes FoodPairing.com, you want contrasting tastes and textures with complementary aromas. Say that you have some heads of broccoli that need to be used before they go bad, and you want to serve something other than basic steamed broc. Consider raisins, which provide an “excellent” aromatic match, says the website’s online pairing tool, along with walnuts, a “good” aromatic match that also offers that contrasting texture by being slightly crunchy. The slight bitterness of the nut plays against the sweetness of the raisin. There you have it—a three-ingredient recipe that’s supposedly, and perhaps surprisingly, a perfect combination. Give it a try yourself! Taking this discussion a few steps further, a research paper published in 2011 in Nature broke the pairing concept down to molecular compounds. This might be a little in the weeds when it comes to applying taste science in school nutrition, but it purportedly reflects the differences and similarities in culinary preferences across the globe. In North American and Western European cuisines, for example, a recipe tends to feature ingredients that have the same underlying molecular compounds. Mozzarella, tomato sauce and Parmesan all share something called the 4-methylpentanoic compound and, well, it’s hard to beat pizza in popularity throughout this half of the globe. When it comes to East Asian and Southern European cooking, foods that have the same molecular compounds are less likely to be used in one recipe. Soy sauce, scallions, sesame oil and rice don’t share compounds. It’s not a perfect science, though, as the same researchers found that Latin American cuisine falls halfway between Southern European and East Asian foods when it comes to shared compounds. A Change of Taste Despite what science dictates, a person’s taste can be changed. If your doctor puts you on a low-sodium diet—and you actually follow it—then you’ll probably find that your taste for salty foods declines as you adapt. And people, including children, can certainly learn to appreciate, if not actually relish, certain foods. Therefore, despite the number of complaints you may get from kindergarteners about how often broccoli shows up on the cycle menu, keep on keeping on—that 5-year-old may be requesting broccoli by the time she is in second grade. If one thing’s for certain, it’s that we all have our own preferences when it comes to the flavors of the food we eat. Perhaps, though, our proclivities are based more on biology than on pickiness. DID YOU KNOW: There are anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 individual taste buds in your mouth, throat and esophagus. When you eat food, these taste buds send signals to your brain to register flavor. Don’t Pick on the Picky Eater When you take a bite of that spinach salad, you think it’s fairly mild. Yet, when 10-year-old Bobby tries it, he insists that it’s way too bitter. This goes beyond individual preferences; in fact, as you age, taste buds become less sensitive. This also explains why there might be foods that, as a child, you couldn’t bear to taste, but now are perfectly palatable. But there’s another explanation, too, one that almost sounds like a comic book superhero—Bobby might be a “supertaster.” In other words, he is one of 25% of people who have extra papillae, or taste buds, on their tongues and, therefore, more taste receptors. While the average person possesses anywhere around 15 to 35 papillae every 6 millimeters (that’s about the size of a hole punch), a supertaster possesses 35 to 60. This concept was identified by Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, whose Yale University research determined that said supertasters experience the most basic of tastes with extraordinary intensity. That’s great, if you’re talking about something like chocolate or luxury cheeses. If it’s an utterly bitter arugula, it’s not such a blessing. (There happen to be “non-tasters,” too, who have fewer than 15 papillae every 6 millimeters—that might be your friend who shakes salt on everything in order to up the flavor.) Of course, not every picky eater falls into the supertaster category—even if they use that as an excuse to eat fewer salads and more pizza. In some cases, picky eating can be traced to another branch of science: psychiatry. The DSM-V from the American Psychiatric Association (that’s the handbook typically used for psychiatric diagnoses) lists Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder as a diagnostic category, although it’s only considered a medical issue if it’s a significant health problem, meaning the person isn’t getting vital nutrients. Additionally, those who suffer from OCD might be particularly picky about any potential contamination of food, while those on the autism spectrum are more likely to be restrictive about what they choose, often having issues with texture or difficulty swallowing or chewing. Cilantro or Soap? For every person who thinks Mexican or Thai food isn’t complete without a sprinkling of the herb cilantro, there’s another who takes a pass, complaining that it tastes like soap. Huh? Once again, this isn’t merely an example of picky eating, nor is it simple taste preferences. Rather, scientists have isolated two genetic variants that actually cause cilantro (known as “coriander” to our friends across the pond) to, yes, taste like soap. One of these variants is found within a cluster of olfactory receptor genes—in other words, those that influence our sense of smell, further confirming that our sense of taste is invariably intertwined with the sense of smell. Mythbusters: The Tongue Map Once upon a time, it was thought that receptors for certain tastes were bundled together in certain areas of the tongue; i.e., one region of the tongue was more suited to tasting sweetness, while another sampled bitter better. However, Linda Bartoshuk—the same woman who identified “supertasters”—discovered that this theory can be traced to 1942, when a Harvard professor misunderstood a 1901 German scholarly paper. The truth is, a lemon is sour, no matter where on the tongue the slice is placed. Although the tongue map theory was debunked definitively in the 1970s, the myth persists. BONUS WEB CONTENT Food Focus Set up a simple nutrition education activity to find out if you or any of your students are supertasters. Get the instructions online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access. Kelsey Casselbury is a contributing editor of this publication. Based in Odenton, Md., she is a former managing editor of this publication.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.