The Favoring of Flavoring
Lauren Cohen and the Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Services Team
“And… how does it taste?”
This is my least favorite question. I’m not sure… maybe nutty? No? This is very stressful for me. Perhaps, smoky? Is that a way to describe food? Can you give me a list of words to work with? I’m really not good at this. It’s a banana. It tastes like banana.
I found solace in a recent conference at New York University, The Science of Human Flavor Perception, confirming that describing and tasting food was much more then a question and answer. It is a complex chemical conversation between your brain and the foods you are eating. While the popular thought is that taste is generated from the contact between food and your taste buds, it really is not the case. Let’s try to make this a little more digestible.
Think of your taste buds as “food receptors” that receive the food and send a signal to the brain. The brain then responds and generates taste. More interesting, perhaps, is that taste cells are all over the body meaning we sense taste everywhere! While the flavor is in the food, and not your brain, the taste in your mouth is generated by these brain signals.
Though, in all fairness, we can’t begin to talk about taste until we understand smell. Without the ability to smell, food would lose almost its entire flavor, with the exception of its basic elements—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. You can test this by taking out a flavor-full snack, like a jellybean. Chew on a jellybean for a moment to recognize the taste and then close your nose. Did you notice that the flavor went away? This is because you lost the ability to breath and smell through your nose or retronasal olfaction. Without this key component, taste is almost entirely eradicated.
So why do we like things and dislike others? A study coming out of the University of Trieste suggests that there is a genetic component to taste perception and preference. While the study is still in its preliminary phases, the research suggests that individuals could have genetic coding that enables them to prefer a food. This would mean that someone who has an inclination towards salt might have more of a link to the food than we earlier realized. While it would seem that the taste is what is drawing an individual to the food, this study suggests that the genetic coding actually keeps you coming back for more. Research such as this could potentially help us understand individuals link to hypertension and other diseases connected to over consuming nutrition.
Aside from a genetic link, there is a recent study, coming out of Monell Chemical Scenes Center in Philadelphia, PA, connecting taste to stress. Furthermore, scientists believe there may be a specific connection between stress and sweet. The study suggests that taste cells around the body, specifically the ones in the gut, are deeply affected by stress. They may influence the metabolism of sugars and increase our affinity towards them. Perhaps this explains my inclination towards Oreos when someone asks me to describe a flavor.
So what does this mean for us? It means that nutrition is far more individual then we could have ever imagined! We already know that everyone’s bodies require different daily calories, different distributions of nutrients, and different types of physical care for overall health but now we are learning that people intrinsically favor different flavors. This could have the potential to help prevent diseases connected with over consuming nutrition such at diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.
The creation of taste is so much more than just a connection between food and our mouths. It is a connection between taste buds, taste cells, genetic coding and more. Next time you eat, you can chew on this.
So, how did this post taste to you? Do you favor flavors?