The Great Taste Seduction: Not Just A Tongue-Job!

Posted by: michael  :  Category: DIY Brain Health

You have to admit that food and beverage manufacturers know a thing or two about designing foods and drinks… in fact, they know exactly how to tick all the right boxes! But we can’t really blame them… after all we are letting the seduction happen! We seem to make a conscious effort to buy manufactured foods rather than natural. More often than not we find the taste of natural foods so bland (or even yucky) that we smother them with salt, fat or dressings… anything to cover them up.

We do this even though most of us know that manufactured foods and drinks are not particularly healthy for us.

Why? Let’s see if we can get some clues as to what’s going on.

I guess we’d all agree that the tongue is involved in taste and that we can pick up even quite small variations in taste, both in the same food and across a range of foods. What do I mean?  To use a simple example, I mean that most of us are able to detect taste differences when a cup of coffee has no sugar, 2 spoons of sugar, 4 spoons and so on. Most of us could also distinguish between tea and coffee.

So it’s reasonable for us to say that the tongue is sensitive to a wide range of tastes.

But what about flavour?  That’s a good question. Our experience of ground coffee beans or maybe baking bread suggests that flavour is a nose-job, rather than a tongue- job.

Here’s a simple test you might like to try…
Set out two identical portions of the same food. Hold your nose while you eat a sample from one portion. Now release the nose hold and eat a sample from the other portion. Did you notice a difference in taste?

So far I think we agree that taste is both a tongue-job and a nose-job but we’re not finished yet. I know from my own experience that the sight of certain foods sets my mouth ‘watering’. I happen to be a fan of broccoli (the vegetable… not a pop group) and I know that it tastes just that little bit less flavoursome if I eat it without first seeing it. So for me, taste is also an eye-job!

I don’t know about you but I think we’re getting on pretty well… we are now fairly confident that taste is the combined result of a tongue-job, a nose-job and an eyeful. Actually it’s also a throat and mouth job too!

Okay, let’s do a bit more thinking about taste…
I think the first point I should make is that while taste and smell are very complex processes but we shouldn’t be deterred from developing a layman’s understanding.

So here we go…
It’s stating the obvious to say that when we put food on our tongue something happens. So let’s make an educated guess that there is some sort of interaction between the food molecules and the surface of the tongue. (a molecule is the smallest piece of something that still has the same characteristics as a big piece). We can be fairly sure that as a result of the interaction a messenger of some sort or other is created. The messenger may be a chemical that goes into the bloodstream or an electrical impulse that travels by the nervous system. An electrical signal seems much more likely given the brief interval it takes us to identify a particular food. Either way, the  destination is the brain.

This is going well so let’s step up a gear…
If a messenger is generated from the interaction between food (and drink) molecules and the tongue we would expect different foods to produce and send different messengers to the brain. If that was not the case, all foods would taste the same.  

Are you curious to know more about the nature of the interaction between food and tongue? I hope so, because I’m about to look at that.

When molecules detach from food they can go to the nose, mouth, throat or all. In each case they will find special cells that have what are called receptors. In the case of taste, the special cells are grouped in taste buds. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, if you touch your tongue particularly near the end you might feel small bumps – most likely those are taste buds that contain the special taste cells.

Generally speaking different receptors accept, and are stimulated by, different molecules but since most foods are complex mixtures it means that each food can stimulate a combination of receptors and create its own chemical identity and electric impulse.  This impulse is transmitted to the brain via the nervous system where it is perceived and remembered.

To what tastes do the special cells respond?  Each taste cell has a receptor that responds to at least five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury. .The question I hope you want to ask is – whether these are predisposed or acquired tastes or a combination?

Let’s look at that question. That’s right, it’s back to primitive man and babies!

But first I just want to state my view of where we are at. I feel we’ve reached the stage at which our ‘dietary choices’ favour manufactured foods (and drinks) rather than natural. In fact, natural foods that ought to taste yummy now taste yucky!

If we can work out how we’ve got into what I can only describe as a ‘dietary choice’ mess maybe we can find a way back to natural choices.

Can we blame our genes? Yes and No! By yes, I mean that we are ‘hardwired” through the process of evolution to seek out certain tastes, in particular sweetness and fat. By no, I mean that we have allowed our instinctive desires to be exploited.

So what about the desire for sweetness? I suggest that sweet foods tend to have high calorific value and as such are a ready source of energy. In primitive times a quick source of energy would often have been required, for example, when hunting prey. As primitive man didn’t have a great range of energy foods from which to choose, an expanded taste sensitivity to identify anything sweet was a necessary part in survival.

We see this desire for sweetness reflected in babies and their preference for mother’s milk which is naturally sweet. Even sweetened water is preferred ahead of non-sweetened alternatives.

What about our pre-disposition to fatty things… can we trace that back to primitive man?  I think the answer is probably yes. I would argue that a large part of primitive man’s diet was animal meat which generally contains a significant amount of fat. I would seem unlikely that any effort would have been made to trim off the fat and certainly in lean times (excuse the pun) the presence of fat would no doubt have been a welcome addition to the diet.

Salty? I’m having a bit of trouble sorting out how salt fitted in. Nowadays we know that salt has an important role in maintaining fluid balance in the body including the water content. Salt is also important in generating electrical impulses in the nerves and muscles.
But primitive man couldn’t have known that as a scientific fact as we do. Perhaps they just felt better when they took in some salt. There were plenty of sources like the ocean shores, dry inland salt pans and certain wild grasses.

So how have these aspects of the primitive man’s diet found their way to the present time. To find some answers to that we look to babies. We already noted that babies like sweetness and as typical mother’s milk is about 4-5% fat we can assume babies like fatty things too.

We also know from observation that babies don’t like sour/bitter. Now that latter observation is interesting. It suggests that primitive man rejected bitter quite possibily because of a characteristic of some substances that taste bitter to be  toxic. So let’s also credit that to our useful primitive man.

Do babies naturally like or dislike salty foods? It seems that they are not fussed one way or another. That observation tends to support the fact that I was having difficulty establishing whether salt was a key part of the primitive diet  I think we can conclude that it wasn’t.

So, we are crediting sweet, bitter and fatty with being tastes to which we are genetically hardwired. That leaves salty and savoury as acquired tastes.

However just because we are ‘programmed to seek out certain tastes doesn’t mean that it is cast in stone… the good news is that we can change the program.  The bad news is that it takes effort and commitment!

Anecdotal evidence suggests that it takes about 30 repetitions to change an eating habit. Are you ready to start?

It’s best to start with a fairly simple task and get some runs on the board – so to speak. If you drink say 3 cups of coffee a day with sugar then each day for 30 days reduce the amount of sugar you add. By the end of 30 days I can virtually guarantee that you’ll prefer coffee without sugar!

Once you’ve experienced that success you can set your sights higher and aim to reduce your salt intake and your consumption of saturated fats. Having said that a certain amount a saturated fat is important for your health, for example, some important vitamins are fat soluble. However, saturated fat intake needs to be balanced with an adequate intake of unsaturated fats and the ,maintenance of an appropriate fatty acid ratio. It’s really the gross consumption of saturated fat I’m targeting.

But changing your dietary choices alone is not enough to optimise your health. You need to look at lifestyle factors. In particular, ongoing stress can disturb your metabolism amongst a whole lot more effects and should be addressed.

So there we are…
We are sitting ducks for food manufacturers since we are predisposed to seek out certain tastes –  tastes that can so easily be reproduced and even enhanced using chemicals.  Other tastes can be acquired through subtle and not so subtle imposition. For example, by way of baby-foods in your formative years or by promoting certain cuisines – like the use of MSG in Chinese food to give it a powerful savoury taste.

And what about the use of chemicals to influence the smell of food? I well remember my high school chemistry days and the fun we had mixing chemicals – making hydrogen sulphide gas and the ‘delightful’ smell of rotten eggs. Wow!

Of course, we must not forget the power of visual promotional techniques. For example, in a frozen meal the colour of vegetables can be enhanced using chemicals so that green peas look greener, carrots look juicier and so on. And let’s not forget the convenience angle.  

Finally, one point just to illustrate the importance of the formative years on future dietary patterns – the babies of mothers that have a regular intake of vegetables prior to giving birth seem to more readily accept vegetables in their diet. It follows that what toddlers are fed may also be important in determining future eating choices.

As I said at the beginning, we can’t blame the food manufacturers for simply giving us what you appear to want.

The buck stops with us – as they say.
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One Response to “The Great Taste Seduction: Not Just A Tongue-Job!”

  1. Jaime Delamar Says:

    i think that that was really interesting. Good post!¡­

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