| FLAVOR 101 | 81 Number of distinct aromatic flavor compounds in a fresh strawberry TASTE The author of Tasty unravels why some foods are “yum” and others are “yuck.” T he origins of our sense of taste stretch back 500 million years, when creatures developed the ability to sense prey in the ocean around them, devour and appreciate it. To this day, the five basic tastes—bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami (savory)—help ensure our survival. Each works through specialized proteins inside our taste buds called taste receptors that latch onto molecules in food and drink, sending signals to the brain through the nervous system and producing sensations from “ew!” to “mmm!” The brain seamlessly weaves these together with aromas and other sensory information to shape the overall flavor. Taste perceptions vary dramatically from one person to the next, and they start forming in the womb, where the fetus senses the chemical signatures of the meals Mom eats. As kids grow and their brains go through developmental spurts, tastes can become quirky. Picky eating, an aggravating puzzle for many parents, may have been a useful evolutionary trait to prevent our hunter-gatherer ancestors from gobbling poisonous berries. To add to the puzzle, some of us are genetically predisposed to taste some foods differently. A classic example is cilantro, which tastes like soap to 10 percent of the population. As we age, our taste perception grows less acute. This can lead us to become more adventurous eaters—able to appreciate the bitterness of Brussels sprouts, espresso drinks or the hops in some beers. | CHEAT SHEET | HOW TO BOOST FLAVOR 1. Ramp up aroma The smells released by chewing can enhance flavors, partly by tapping into our memories. 2. Add variety Our hunter-gatherer ancestors enjoyed diverse diets, so many of us crave varied, strong flavors, such as the heat of chile peppers. SALTY Our brains are programmed so that a little salt tastes good, and a lot tastes bad. This ensures we consume just enough to maintain the salt balance our bodies need to function. But beware—your palate can adapt to crave a lot of salt, as in the case of people who eat the typical American diet. The good news: If you cut back on salt, your taste buds can adapt to be satisfied with less. SOUR The mouthpuckering sensation is caused by acids in lemons, yogurt and sourdough bread and other food. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how it works, or even its precise biological purpose, but many suspect that sourness originally signaled that food was decomposing and was potentially unsafe to eat. SWEET The most elemental of taste pleasures, sweetness signals the presence of sugars, the foundation of the food chain and a source of energy. Today, though, our sweet tooth is overstimulated by an avalanche of sugar in our diet. UMAMI Japanese for “delicious taste,” umami is produced by certain amino acids. It’s best described as “savory”—a taste rich in flavor released by cooking, curing or aging. Examples of umami foods include seared and cured meats, aged cheeses, fish sauce, green tea, soy sauce and cooked tomatoes. HONORABLE MENTION: FAT The five basic tastes may soon be joined by fat. A growing body of research suggests the tongue has receptors that can detect fatty acids, and the luxurious appeal of high-fat foods like ice cream and butter is more than just a matter of texture. | TEST YOURSELF | ARE YOU A SUPERTASTER? If you don’t like strong flavors—especially bitter tastes, spicy fare or high-fat foods—you might be among the 25 percent of the population that are supertasters. You can find out by counting the papillae (pink bumps that contain three to five tastebuds) on your tongue. Go to Parade.com/supertaster for a simple test. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid is the author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat (Scribner), inspired by his struggle to understand his kids’ strange and contradictory food choices. 3. Strike a balance The most gratifying foods contain just enough spiciness or richness, but research shows too much flavor is a turn-off. 4. Consider mouthfeel Food texture—mushy, crunchy or creamy—affects flavor and enjoyment. So does temperature and if a food makes you pucker up. 5. Eat with your eyes Colors, arrangement and even dishes or cutlery can influence how the mind perceives flavor. 14 | MAY 17, 2015 © PARADE Publications 2015. All rights reserved. PHOTOS BY ISTOCK IMAGES By John McQuaid BITTER A poison alarm, bitterness is a distinctive bad taste accompanied by a reflexive “yuck” expression on the face. Hundreds of substances, mostly found in plants, taste bitter. But a little bitterness makes food interesting—and healthy. Antioxidants, which aid metabolism and help the body ward off cancer, account for much of the bitter taste of kale, dark chocolate and coffee.
© Copyright 2018