You may squeal with pleasure biting into the super dark chocolate cake that you just baked, while your partner or a child will fork through it forcefully. At times, we have to shun our taste in order not to insult others or to be socially proper, but the reality is there to be faced: individually we can and have different taste preferences. Here I am not talking just about the aesthetic or social aspects of taste, but our gustatory perception. Our life depends on nutrient-rich and sufficient consumption, and whether in the form of beverages or food, these substances cannot be divorced from taste. In fact, our well- or ill-being is affected by taste or our perception of flavour. Whether the creator of humanity was God or nature through evolution, we were programmed to avoid bitter flavours, in nature often flagging poisonous substances in their high doses such as digitalin (in Foxglove) or quinine (in Cinchona Officinalis). Scientific evidence suggests that we were set to crave fatty foods, often with a protein attached to the fatty animal flash or the oily nut. Carbohydrates approaching the doses of the modern age came much later and it seems that the protein and fat rich diet of our ancestors allowed for the brain to develop and our metabolic system to be reduced to save energy. Glucose together with oxygen though are necessary for neurons to work, and perhaps they work too much these days as we feed them with heaps of sugar in almost everything processed we consume.
Food, taste and human history in perspective
Food historians documented the richness of human culinary activities and with it our changing tastes. Archeological evidence of our prehistoric ancestors suggests that taste “depends upon what one is used to”, writes Alan K. Outram in his essay on The Evolution of Taste in Prehistory. Once we were scavengers, eating semi-rotten, off food, which today rises our stomachs upside down. Just think about eating a week’s old animal or rotten apples. In some cultures, however, still today people eat and enjoy the taste of certain beverages and foods that a westerner could find extremely unpleasant. Such beverage is koumiss, a fermented mare’s milk, that is consumed in Kazakhstan, further East is yuba (tofu skin) devoured in Japan, insects served in Mexico or eating human flesh by cannibals certainly does not make you salivate, does it? Our environment throws some tastes upon us. The Italians love their pasta al-dente, cook it like the Greeks do their moussaka and they will most likely complain, the hot Sichuan food is also not for every palate, and the sweet and sour kinship of Thai cuisine also has its fans as well as its detractors. It depends on how one gets accustomed to something by a long tradition. Each historical period and its dominant culture had distinct taste preferences. Generally, the more sophisticated a civilisation was, the more elaborate were its gastronomic offerings. China’s gastronomic richness and the respect for its culinary writers throughout its millennia of existence demonstrate the search for perfection within a single cuisine tradition.
Yet, across cultures we see preoccupation not only with taste in terms of flavour but as Paul Friedman in his book Food, The History of Taste observes, also its “impressive and artistic effect”. The later is even more celebrated today as we cook less and dine out more, so novelty overtook the tastiness aspect of a meal out. Taste is in large part subjective, but it is influenced by our social environment. “Gastronomy expresses an outlook, an aesthetic…while taste says something important about specific places and times” writes Freedman. Social history points at the use of spices beyond their native environment of India during the Middle Ages, while the global introduction of refined sugar that reached its height in the 1800s, radically changed our dietary choices.
It is natural that a certain taste can please you, while another person is repulsed by it. I like artichoke, but my partner craves a medium rare steak. To a certain extent, each of of has developed a specific sensitivity to flavours, different likes and dislikes (more later in the text). Cravings are mysterious but I am not focused on our longings here, what is more important is the need to clarify the difference between taste and flavour:
“Flavour is a combination of the tastes that are constituent parts of the food and their odour”, said Lucy Donaldson, a senior lecturer in physiology and pharmacology at the University of Bristol and one of the UK’s leading experts on taste. This means that flavour is above taste, it is the resulting impression from tasting something. Losing olfactory ability (smell) means that food can only be perceived in terms of its texture (trigeminal nerve) and a very limited flavour. What can help here is our memory, which can draw from its symbolic well of past experiences.
Perhaps because of its mysterious and subjective origin, many myths surround our taste. For example in school we learn about the specific regions of the tongue or the tongue map that for example suggests that only on the tip of your tongue you can taste sweet. In an interview with the BBC, Donaldson turns this theory upside down, said: “You’ve got cells that will detect sugars all over your tongue and also the same sorts of cells on the roof of your mouth – on the soft palate. So you can actually detect sweet taste in many, many different areas.” Further, the taste buds are scattered in the mouth as well as in the throat and as I mentioned above, our sense of odours as well as the stimulation of the trigeminal nerve which registers texture and temperature of the substance, physiologically determine flavour.
Scarcity and famine surely derail the importance of taste. It is said that hunger is the best cook, which in the pre-industrial age created a broad acceptance of flavours by the majority of the World’s population, yet who is hungry today are just the impoverished nations in Africa, in crisis-stricken countries such as Venezuela and the war zones.
The joy versus disgust duel gets even more nuanced when dining out is concerned. For example the polarity of an accent on quality of the ingredients in seeking authenticity of flavours versus chefs’ manipulation of ordinary ingredients to create an illusion on your palate through chemistry. An example of true flavours seeker is the multi-Michelin Monegasque chef Alain Ducasse, while Heston Blumenthal (formerly also Ferran Adria of the allegedly World’s Best Restaurant in its heyday) and the other ‘molecular’ chefs use their imagination to create artificial flavours on diners’ plates. This is nothing new as already in the Homeric period simple and direct flavour was preferred, while complex and sophisticated richness was later praised by the Medieval tradition.
The perception of quality also differed across cultures and centuries. Sadly, with industrial standardisation we experienced some diminution of taste. Nevertheless today, with a more democratised and globalised taste the foodies are more nuanced in their taste preferences. It is not just about having the luxury of availability and choice, but more about lifestyle. Perhaps as a counter reaction to the artificial produce of the food industry, the millennials want ‘real, clean and natural’ food and the marketers are there to catch these phrases on their packaging. The contemporary customer cannot be mislead as in the past mainly because now we know more about food (just google it), and perhaps as our choices are being more complex than ever, we demand transparency. It is ironic that in the past taste for rare ingredients was the mark of wealth, while today it is the organic, dirty farmers carrots that are devoured with pride. Fashions in food further define our inclination towards certain taste. Some acai or green superpowder in your smoothie? Blueberries are so boring, aren’t they?
How something looks can also alter our cognition about its taste. The attention that the millions of food images on the Instagram get is massive and many cookbooks today sell just based on their colourful pictures. On the other side, a great looking dish rises our expectations about its taste and when these are not met and we are disappointed, we cannot say, yeah that tastes great!
In gastronomy this abstract quality of taste is used by sophisticated chefs. Donaldson nods to their efforts, saying: “The brain actually activates what happens on the tongue.”
The scientific research on taste
Plenty of research has been conducted in this domaine, and since La Muse Blue includes the sensory pleasures from tasting beverages like tea and wine as well as indulgent or healthy food, I dug into the scientific papers flying online and two substantial books dedicated to the subject of taste. Food: The History of Taste edited by Paul Freedman looks at historical cues, while Olfaction, Taste and Cognition edited by a scientific group of anthropologists, linguists, neuroscientists and psychologists, scans multiple disciplines providing insight into how our perception of smell is tightly connected to flavour since they “seem to be processed to a large extent in terms of their emotional component.“ Nevertheless, other actors play role in our cognition. This is what I found:
It seems that physiology as well as psychology play the decisive roles in our perception of flavours, but personal differences in the perception of taste are also affected by hormones (age, gender, period, pregnancy and your mood). As I mentioned above most children do not like coffee and find wine unpleasant (tannins are the culprits), but they enjoy sweet flavours because the breast milk is naturally very sweet. The process of acquiring new flavours starts before we are born. Donaldson asserts that “flavours from our diet pass in to the amniotic fluid surrounding baby, and that he or she can start to smell and taste them from around the six month of pregnancy – a process that continues with breastfeeding.” It’s a process that starts before we are born and a better understanding might help mothers reduce the likelihood of ending up with a fussy eater. Pregnant women and their cravings display best the effect of hormones on our taste. Some of my pregnant friends surprise me by saying that something they used to like tastes like a cardboard to them, while that box of chocolate truffles talks to them more loudly than ever: ‘please take me, I am all yours! Yum.’ Gender tendencies for certain flavours are also documented in particular in relationship with emotions as the Michelin chef Helene Darroze pointed in a recent interview. The puzzling question remains whether it is more stereotypical or rather based on the physical and psychological differences of individuals. Overall though most of my female friends do not particularly like meat, while most of the males spark their eyes over a steak.
Taste is a complicated concept that cannot be reduced into specific areas on your tongue perceiving certain tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami = monosodium glutamate in ripe parmesan or tomatoes). Although physiological aspects such as taste buds do exist, the differences are more nuanced. For example our physiological age and with it our hormonal changes affect how intensely we perceive certain taste and for which we have preference. Around the age of 50 we lose tongue papillae, which are clusters of taste buds, but also our production of saliva decreases. Tannic and bitter flavours were surely not your vice when you were a child. Like me you wondered, how these adults can drink so much of this terrible black coffee? Or how they can voluntarily drink wine, so sour? As a kid you certainly preferred the pleasing softness of sugar.
Some people further have more developed taste than others. Like dogs having the ability to smell better, sensory sensitivity can be heightened in some individuals. In her research psychologist Linda Bartoshuk found that “supertasters – which make up around 25 per cent of the population – carry a double copy of a gene which makes them super-sensitive to bitter tastes. Among the things they hate are green vegetables, grapefruit juice, coffee and soy products, as well as overly sweet things. At the other end of the spectrum – also 25 per cent of the population – are non-tasters, whose “pastel world” of flavours is far less sensitive” She explains that is “genetically determined, depends on which receptors they’ve got expressed in their taste buds and on how many taste buds they’ve got.”
Taste is umbilically connected with smell and neuroscientists can prove this. Similar brain regions (mainly within the right hemisphere, amygdala, insula and orbitofrontal cortex) are involved in the perception of odorus and flavours. The fMRI scans have shown activity in this area and this also means that favours and odours have emotional significance.
Some intrepid chefs are well aware of this research on gustatory sensations and since taste and smell are more related than the other senses, they set their restaurants or some specific dishes around this experience. The English ‘culinary magician’ Heston Blumenthal collaborated with scientists to create his “Sounds of the sea” dish at his restaurant Fat Duck. Diners are eating a fish pie while listening to the sea sounds through an iPod. In Ibiza testing this theory, the ultra-sensory restaurant Heart by Albert Adria includes all senses. Odours are detected at very low concentrations therefore you basically taste what you smell and then the chef needs to impress you just by the texture such as the optional crunch or tenderness.
Yet the chefs also have to consider flavour combinations and interactions as chemistry steps in. For example fat and salt reduce the bitter component of foods and drinks. Bartoshuk mentions “a naturally occurring manipulator of sweet taste from a berry that grows in Ghana, it is called the Miracle Berry and it’s a protein that when you taste it, it will change your perception of what you’re tasting. You can eat a lemon like it’s an orange and it sort of tastes like lemon sweets – you can still taste the lemon but all the acid goes”. Fascinating! Wine pairing is based on a similar concept and seeks to balance the flavours with the dish. It never seemed to me that it was the alcohol in wine that made it taste better, but the beverage itself, if chosen well, created a better tasting plate. The conditions preceding savouring indeed can reduce our perception of certain flavours. For example eating spicy or very salty foods will make anything more subtle tasting bland. The subtlety of Japanese food would be killed by a bowl of Korean super hot rice.
Certain chemical substances present in food though are generally viewed as having an unpleasant taste. Taurin is one of them. On the other hand glycirhizic acid is generally enjoyable.
Emotions, vital in evolutionary perspective for survival in the social environment seem to interact or to be a consequence of our experience with taste. Either a depression or happiness can be triggered by food! So what, according to the scientists, this all means for our well-being or rather how can increase the joy from tasting something?
Charles Spence from Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology suggests for “chefs noting customers’ reactions to an amuse-bouche before each meal and adjusting the dishes that follow to maximise their satisfaction.” I am with him as he reasons that “if a quarter of the population have a strong reaction to some tastes and another quarter have no reaction, it makes no sense for everyone to be given the same dish. There’s the potential to go out to dinner and leave not just having had a good meal, but knowing far more about your own taste.”
What would be also interesting to study is the dieters preoccupation with low-calorie or healthy food and whether it is capable of rendering ones taste. Can a person’s internal representation alter his/her real perception of taste?
Intuitive ideas about taste
I would further be curious how personality can affect our taste preferences. For example would an open – sanguinic – person be enthusiastic about anything, while flagmatic just would not care about taste? Certainly our attitudes must influence how we enjoy something. So does our ability to focus on flavour. Particularly in the fast-paced metropolitan culture, when we tend to eat habitually without giving much thought to the taste of our lunch sandwich or morning latte. Does our contemporary lifestyle suppress our perception of taste? I just view such robotic consumption is making us less human. It is sad. If you stop and think about how something tastes, you may perceive more flavours than when mindlessly munching over a desk or on a go from another meeting. No wonder that the easy-to-reward overtly salty or sugary fast-food thrives, since unless you read the ingredients list, you rarely detect more complex flavours than the fast hit of sugar or salt’s mouth-drying sharpness.
Since humans as well as computers can be mistaken (a recent finding by Swedish team of researchers lead by Dr Eklund at Linkoping University, that as many as 3,000 studies using fMRI to evaluate brain function could simply be wrong), science offers us hints to how things work, but still using our common sense and intuition can prove to be as correct as these external techniques to evaluate our taste. Being aware of this, think about what flavours make you salivate, which food images increase your sense of comfort or simply why you like a certain meal at a restaurant while your dining mate is fussy about it? For me, experiencing throughout my career as a food writer, I have been puzzled by the individual differences in taste, therefore always take the critiques (like myself), and even more the self-titled food bloggers with a pinch of reservation. What is helpful is when I find a ‘tastemate’ or someone with similar preferences, since this person’s judgement will be more likely in accord with mine.