The Science of Taste — Plus, Some Food Experiments!
June 9, 2022
What Is Taste?
First, let’s dig into the science of taste and the connection to your health, and then we’ll move into the kitchen!
When most people think of taste, they think of the tongue and its receptors — taste buds — but we have a sensory system, known as the gustatory system. Regarding taste buds: “They serve as the initial sentinel for a sensory system critical in evolution for distinguishing “dangerous” food components, often perceived as bitter or unpleasant, from “useful” ones, often perceived as pleasant, salty, or sweet.”
Another study explains: “There is considerable divergence, as well as convergence, of information between multiple regions of the central nervous system that interact with the taste pathways, with reciprocal connections occurring between the involved regions. These widespread interactions among multiple systems are crucial for the perception of food. For example, memory, hunger, satiety, and visceral changes can directly affect and can be affected by the experience of tasting.” Isn’t that interesting? The experience of tasting.
We know our tongue has cell receptors that detect each of the five basic tastes: salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami (savory). Did you know you had taste receptors in your gut? “Several studies have revealed that taste signal transduction occurs in a variety of cell types throughout the gut, from the stomach to the large intestine. Indeed, the sweet receptor (T1R2 + T1R3) and umami receptor (T1R1 + T1R3) are found in gastric secretory cells, which induce the release of ghrelin, an appetite-inducing peptide, after the activation by an appropriate substance.”
To summarize, just the taste of something can release ghrelin, which can increase your hunger. Now when someone says to you that they can’t even have a taste of something (you perhaps?) or the flood gates can open (More sugar! More wine! More chips!) now you know why.
Back to the five tastes—there might be a sixth. Researchers at the University of Italy in Naples, have found that: “Recently, a dedicated neurosensory pathway connected to CO2 has also been discovered, supporting the hypothesis of a distinct taste for carbonation, that may also influence the perception of other tastes.” This is still a young hypothesis, but an interesting one.
Lastly, your general health can affect your sense of taste, as people with loss of taste from Covid can attest to. One study states that: “Determinants of such alterations are multiple and consist of both genetic and environmental factors, including aging, exposure to chemicals, drugs, trauma, high alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, poor oral health, malnutrition, and viral upper respiratory infections including influenza.”
Keep in mind that food companies are always trying to find ways to make your food more palatable or hyper-palatable, meaning sweeter, saltier, and fattier, which all creates a mouthfeel that people like. These foods are generally highly processed and not at all a healthy choice. There are scientists in a lab as we speak creating food ingredients to make bitter food taste sweet and sweet food taste bitter.
“Using systems biology approaches the goal is to develop scientific basis for food production with component and functional profiles to satisfy health and sensory needs of consumers using biomolecular research methods are being combined with high performance analytical technologies and bioinformatics methods to achieve their goals.” That doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it?
You might consider clicking on all the above reference links to read more. We’ve only touched on the complexities.
Taste is an important determinant of our good health. Now, let’s get out of the lab and into the kitchen.
At Foogal, we would like to help you create tasty food that satisfies you and keeps you healthy.
What food properties affects taste and how?
Sweetness will counteract bitter and sour flavors. It can also be used to cut down the heat of a particularly spicy meal. Options sugar (so many kinds!), honey, fruits.
Saltiness: Salt can balance bitterness and it enhances most other flavors present in the dish, particularly sweetness. Think about salted caramel, or dark chocolate with a light sprinkle of sea salt. Salt is a necessary ingredient to bring out flavor, such as a lovely slice of tomato, or in a potato salad.
Bitterness is not the most popular flavor but is critical to balance. The taste of citrus, dark greens or beer can help to cut through the richness or sweetness of a dish.
Sourness: Think of vinegar and citrus. Acidity works wonders in balancing a dish, adding freshness, and counteracting sweetness and heat. Once my sister called me and was having trouble flavoring a rice dish and I told her to add a little vinegar. She thought I was nuts at the time, but it worked and years later she still mentions it.
Umami: This flavor is a personal favorite. Think soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mushrooms, and many cheeses. Umami is used to complement other flavors – perfect for a dish that seems balanced but is still lacking something.
So, What Is Flavor?
Now that we have briefly explained taste and how it may affect your health, what is flavor?
Flavor is when taste and aroma converge—a mixture of sensory data. Now imagine you are very hungry and just prepared a beautiful meal that smells so good! Digestion begins when your mouth starts to water. You take that first bite, combining the aroma and the taste, and then, of course, you’re quite proud of yourself for creating something so delicious. Most of us have experienced getting a whiff of an apple pie (or whatever) and being right back with our mom in the kitchen, or wherever that memory takes us. Olfactory (which means relating to the sense of smell) memories are powerful.
The below culinary experiments combine taste and aroma to create flavor.
It will be fun to try the below experiments and decide for yourself the flavor you were going for. If you have children have them help you with this.
Garlic is a fun way to start. Its flavor comes from a compound called allicin which is produced when the walls of garlic are broken down. The more you slice, chop, or crush garlic the more allicin is produced and the more pungent the garlic will be.
Separate the head of garlic into individual cloves. Keep the peel on a few cloves and sauté over low heat in a little olive oil for a few moments or until softened but not golden. Remove from the pan and let cool while you ready the other ingredients. Keep a couple more whole and peeled. Set-aside as well.
For these various ways of prepping garlic, keep them away from each other, so their flavor/aroma stays separate. Next peel a few cloves and slice thinly. Then, take a few more peeled garlic and rough chop. Next mince, next crush with a knife and lastly, place some through a garlic press, if you have one.
Now, starting with the whole garlic, breath in the scent. You will find that as you go through your list, more allicin is released, and the flavor becomes much stronger. Now the decision is which flavor is right for your dish? You prefer really garlicky garlic bread? You know what to do!
Sulfur Rich Foods
This same experiment works with sulfur-rich foods, such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower
Next Parmesan Cheese
Next, try these steps with Parmesan Cheese. Thinly slice some, rough grate some, and if you have a microplane, use that for some. You can also use the finest grate on your box grater. You will smell and taste the distinct differences. With Parmesan Cheese, the flavor diminishes the longer it sits.
Try slicing a tomato, quartering it, and chopping some. Your taste buds can tell the difference. Personally, I prefer sliced.
Here’s an idea for combining tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Take a ripe summer tomato, slice half of it, and cut the other half into wedges. Taste a bite or two out of the slice and wedge, then sprinkle with a little salt and taste again, then drizzle with a little olive oil (optional), and on each bite place a little roughly grated Parmesan, medium grate, and then finely grated. This will be a tasty experiment. What was your preference?
At Foogal, we make real food tasty.
At Foogal, we offer chef-created recipes that are delicious and health-supporting. We understand that everyone’s preferences are different, hence the above tips on how to increase or decrease the flavor components — with the proper balance — to create a dish that is right for you and your family.