Tasting, down to a science
Tasting a bite of rich chocolate souffle or a savory piece of beef tenderloin can send us into a state of pure bliss, but what is it about a food’s flavor that makes us so giddy when we eat it?
The flavor of the food has something to do with it, but it’s a person’s taste buds that create the happiness, or sometimes the disgust, out of a food’s flavor.
The most pleasurable of the five senses is arguably taste, but taste is helped by the other senses to enhance our experiences. A lemon, for example, doesn’t taste like a lemon, it smells like a lemon, says Dr. Harry Lawless, director of graduate studies for the Field of Food Science at Cornell University.
Our likes and dislikes for certain foods are already predetermined by genetics. Scientists have categorized some folks as “supertasters” ” those with an especially acute sense of taste, and others as non-tasters. There are some explanations for why some people can taste things better than others, but there are still a lot of questions in the field of food science.
In 1932, Arthur L. Fox, a chemist, accidentally discovered that some people were tasters, and others non-tasters, or “taste-blind.” Fox determined that he couldn’t taste the chemical propylthiouracil, or PROP, whereas some people described the chemical as tasting bitter. His discovery spun into a bunch of research that confirmed this belief.
Part of the intensity of taste or certain tastes is genetic, Lawless says, but he’s skeptical about the “supertaster” theory. Some people clearly have more taste buds than others, which is obvious when comparing tongues under a microscope. But tasting is also something that can be learned and improved upon with practice, he says.
“I don’t think that a lot of the great tasters in the world are necessarily born that way,” Lawless says. “It’s hard work; it takes a lot of attention.”
Attention is what people like sommeliers, or wine experts, give toward the science of taste. They study for hundreds of hours, trying to train their palates to taste the hidden flavors in wine.
Ever read a wine label that describes the wine as having earth, blackberry and oak flavors, but you taste it and get none of that?
“Taste is really highly subjective,” says Todd Rymer, a culinary education professor at Colorado Mountain College. “Even for people with well-trained palates.”
The reason it’s so subjective is because taste and flavor are two different things, says Diane Henderiks, a dietician and nutritionist who is making a guest appearance at the Taste of Vail next week.
“I think the distinctive flavor from foods come more from the aroma and the feeling of well being and all of the anticipations,” she says. “There’s a connection between your nose and your mouth. When you smell something, all these things get triggered.”
It’s the combination of what goes on in the mouth and the nose that constitutes flavor, Lawless says.
The chewing going on releases smells into the nose, but those smells often differ from the smells we sense before putting the food or wine into our mouths.
Other sensations travel through long networks to get to the brain, but aroma is right there, Rymer says.
“Aroma triggers intense emotions,” he says.
And emotions create memory. A memory, such as the smell of fresh pasta that reminds you of a trip to Italy, stimulates the taste buds to get ready for that food, Henderiks says.
A person’s familiarity with certain smells creates an expectation of taste. A good example of this is the 2005 Burgundy, says Cathy Cohn, a wine distributor and guest sommelier at Vin 48 in Avon and Larkspur Restaurant in Vail.
“It has these really poignant and beautiful fruit flavors on the nose, but then you put it in your mouth and it’s just not ready to go,” she says. “The taste hasn’t really caught up with the smell yet on that vintage.”
That could explain why things taste bland or different during a cold, according to Colorado State University research on the subject.
Kevin Furtado, a Vail sommelier and winemaker, says the smell of his mom’s chocolate chip cookies makes him crave the cookies, but the smell of a different recipe might not stimulate him as much.
“Everyone has their own individuality with tasting,” he says.
Tasting involves the same general process for everyone, though. Molecules released when eating something move through the back of the throat to reach nerve endings in the roof of the nose. They then send smell messages via the olfactory bulb to two parts of the brain: the section of the temporal lobe involved with memory, and the part of the temporal lobe involved with speech, according to research from Cornell University’s Taste Science Laboratory.
“The olfactory genome is like 2 percent of our total genes, which is huge,” Lawless says. “There’s a huge part (of our genes) put aside for flavor.”
So when people say they hate the taste of cilantro because it’s bitter, Lawless says they might just dislike the smell, not the actual flavor, because of “our diversity in the palate of smell receptors.”
Unfortunately, another science could be affecting taste. Rymer says hormones and pesticides are used to produce food as quickly as possible, with little consideration of how that food’s flavor could be affected. The flavors of foods genetically engineered to grow quickly are typically less intense, he says.
“It’s more expensive to produce (foods) with better flavor,” Rymer says.
A good chef always tastes everything, Rymer says. There are four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. These are tastes that the tongue can determine without the help of the olfactory senses ” the smells released when food or wine is in the mouth.
But now, scientists and chefs are recognizing “umami,” or monosodium glutamate (MSG), as the fifth taste people can decipher. Umami is the taste of amino acids found in things like meat broth or aged cheese.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s an umami flavor,” Lawless says.
Umami, which scientists didn’t understand 25 years ago, is just one area in which the field of food science has evolved, he says. Scientists have discovered all kinds of facts related to our senses of taste, especially through their learning about the different receptors within our taste buds.
There’s evidence that sugar might affect our endorphins, while chocolate affects our bodies like serotonins affect us. Lawless also thinks that people who salivate a lot might make good sommelier candidates, since their mouths naturally clean up faster.
“In the last 15 years, we’ve really been able to understand how things work,” Lawless says.
Lauren Glendenning can be reached for comment at 970-748-2983 or email@example.com