As a dietitian I am deeply committed to the power of nutrition meeting the pleasure of eating. Let’s be clear. I am a food lover first. And what follows as a not-too-distant second, is my fascination with the human body. And more specifically, my fascination with the way that the food we eat can influence health. For many years the nutrition conversation has sounded like a choice between food that tastes good and food that is good for you. This has been a hard sell made complicated by a food industry designing foods to appeal to taste. In our upcoming class “The Science of Taste” we will explore many facets of taste and further our understanding of how to please our palette while at the same time attending to our health.
Taste is mysterious and taste is interesting. Taste is shaped by a food’s temperature, smell, texture, our own past experiences with the food, and how our brain interprets all of this information. Our food preferences are rooted in what is familiar: how our family fed us, what our environment offered up, and what we learned looking around at “others’” plates. And, let’s face it, how our taste buds prefer to eat profoundly influences our health. After all, if my taste buds deeply preferred brown sugar-frosted Pop-tarts over, let’s say, yogurt, fruit, and granola I would be in a much different state of health than I am now. Just saying. Now, most of us are born preferring sweetness. After all, breast milk is about 7 percent lactose, a sugar. And, the aversion to bitter tasting foods may be a programmed survival skill helping us to avoid ingesting toxins. This early programming may contribute to the trouble many of get into with food today.
Now, some may describe culinary artist (a.k.a. chefs) as “taste bud hackers,” meaning that sneaky chef scientists actually have a plan when they are creating our meal to get our taste buds excited and to make our food memorable. It is a plan designed to make our taste buds happy, indeed. As it turns out the food industry is in on that plan too. Dr. David Kessler, MD in his book “The End of Overeating” explores the science of taste, food addiction, and the food industry as does Michael Moss in his New York Times article “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” (Feb 2013). According to both Kessler and Moss, by combining certain flavors the food industry hopes to favorably compete for stomach space, creating foods that yes please the taste buds but often leave the eater feeling “hungrier still.” This, combined with an inborn preference for sweets, can serve up real trouble when it comes to health.
So, how do we make healthy foods the foods we cannot get enough of? Turns out that there are a few tricks. The first trick is deeply rooted in French cooking. FASS. Fat, acid, sweet and salt. When balanced properly this is an award-winning combination that leaves your taste buds satiated. This is a principle that applies equally to healthy foods, as it does to more processed foods. The power of satisfaction triggers the brain to say: “I am done.” In other words, we stop eating. I am thinking of that perfectly balanced, wilted green veggie with olive oil, garlic, a pinch of salt, a splash of red pepper flakes, and a dash of lemon. YUM. I would trade that for a bed of pasta any time. Seriously.
Try it for yourself: Take a bite of raw kale….what do you think? Now wilt it in a little olive oil. Where are we at now? Add a pinch of sea salt, a splash of lemon, a few red pepper flakes, and a hint of pepper…now are we talking Think about it: Why do we love salted caramel ice cream? FASS! Now apply that to a salad…spinach, strawberries, goat cheese, a spiced nut, and vinaigrette. We have a craveable healthy bowl full of yum.
It does not stop there. Our brain constructs flavor through the hundreds of receptors in the nose that respond to the aromas of food. The space between the nose and the mouth combines aroma with the 5 basic taste notes to create the experience of thousands of flavors. So what happens when a sense of taste and smell are compromised? Quickly we can become cut off from the appeal of health supporting foods. If you cannot reach a person’s taste buds, it does not matter how good for you the plate of food is.
Interestingly, research on taste is not all culinary. Beyond sensing taste, new research suggests that taste receptors have other responsibilities, too. According to new research taste receptors do not only live on the tongue but throughout the body where they play a variety of roles. Taste receptors have been identified not only in the mouth but along the gut, in the pancreas, and in the lungs and sinuses. One role bitter taste receptors throughout the body might have is to defend against microbrial invaders. These taste receptors are body guards.
In our upcoming free culinary medicine class “The Science of Taste” we will play with the science of taste wrapped around health and YUM. This class will explore the principles of mindful eating (engaging all of the senses), the power of pleasing the senses by using the flavor wheel to create healthy foods that satisfy the palate, and we will explore ways to manipulate taste in support of helping people navigate treatments and other circumstances where taste might be off and where nutrition is critically important.
Kim Evans, RD, is a clinical dietitian for the UVM Medical Center’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.