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Why food is so damn good: How the science of taste effects our foodie experience
If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you have an intense obsession with food in all of its glorious aspects; how it looks, smells, sounds, feels, and most importantly, tastes. You probably have a general interest in the gastronomical importance of the 5 senses – especially since it determines the way in which we experience our food adventures.
The connection between taste, emotion, and thus, the experience can be attributed to evolution; Taste was a sense that aided us in testing the food we were consuming. Used as a survival method where the bitter or sour taste was an indication of poisonous inedible plants and the taste of sweet and salty were indicators of food rich in nutrients. I’d like to believe that everyone is born with this innate aversion to poisonous substances but with the news of people eating tide pods and other various non-edible substances I’m rather skeptical. Today, we now know that taste isn’t just attributed to the tongue, rather it’s a culmination of the 5 senses as a unit that determines how much you enjoy or dislike your flavor encounter.
The “see-food” diet was never intended for us foodies; we tend to spend a lot of time admiring every detail of the art that is situated on the plate in front of us (especially if it costs a pretty penny). The visual and smell is enough to stimulate a gustatory response but our experience is truly governed by all of the senses. The texture of the food against your tongue and around the mouth along with the sound of the crunch or squish with your initial bite lends itself to the moment.
The taste is then intensified by the smell once again, this is considered the retronasal smell. Unlike the orthonasal smell (like the aroma of
a freshly baked pie from a distance), retronasal refers to the “mouth smell” that occurs as the food is in the process of being swallowed, adding another dimension to the flavor profile. The way the brain creates the sensation of flavor and taste, engaging the brain more than any other activity is referred to as neurogastronomy and it is the reason we, as foodies, do what we do.
That reminds me… remember that diagram? You know, the one with the tongues and the different areas that were color coded representing zones that processed different profiles like sweet, salty, bitter, etc. Yeah, that’s a myth. With modern science and technology we’ve been able to determine that that was a lie (get my Maury reference?) Modern imaging shows that there are receptors not only on the tongue, but around the mouth, including the back of the throat that contain receptors for all of the flavor profiles.
From determining whether a substance is poisonous or not to ensure survival to judging Grandma’s pie against her competitors’ at the county fair, the evolution of the way we use taste still retains its biological roots of following neural pathways and exciting different areas of the brain. Thanks to science we are better able to understand how and why we have such a healthy (and I use the term loosely) obsession with our food experiences.
- FEMA staff. “Neurogastronomy: Flavors Engage the Brain.” FEMA, November 1, 2017, www.femaflavor.org/neurogastronomy-flavors-engage-the -brain
- Hammond, Claudia. “The real truth about whether our tongues have ‘taste zones’.” BBC future, October 12, 2017, www.bbc.com/future/story/20171012-do-our-tongues-have-different-taste-zones
- InformedHealth.org [internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for quality and efficiency in health care (IQWiG); 2006-. How does our sense of taste work? 2011 Dec 20 [updated 2016 Aug 17]
- Kanwal, Jessleen K. “Brain tricks to make food taste sweeter: How to transform taste perception and why it matters.” SITN, January 11, 2016, sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/brain-tricks-to-make-food-taste-sweeter-how-to-transform-taste-perception-and-why-it-matters/