Natick is a sort of laboratory of pure liking, because soldiers’ food preferences aren’t affected by some of the things proven to influence liking in the civilian world, such as price. Nor do soldiers have much choice about what to eat. (Which may be overrated. Diner menus, Moskowitz jokes, “have seven pages. You order the same thing all the time, but you want the illusion of choice”). Which is not to say that Natick has not played a huge role in the American diet. Consider how rare food in a pouch once was, and how prevalent it now is.
But back to that meal. How do the MREs of tomorrow stand up? Do they still deserve the unfortunate sobriquet “meals refusing to exit”? I take a bite of MATS Salmon (the MATS stands for microwave-assisted thermal sterilization). It is, admittedly, a bit tough (“a little chewier than we’d like,” says Darsch). But the taste is there, at least more than you would expect for a shrink-wrapped piece of room temperature fish. Would it fly at Del Posto? No. But to a soldier faced with a long patrol in a hot desert, it might be just good enough.
A key distinction to make is “tastes” versus “flavors.” In terms of taste—the perceptions of salty, sweet, savory, bitter, sour—humans essentially have the same innate preference the world round. John Prescott notes in his book Taste Matters, “The sweet taste of sucrose in water...is optimally pleasant at around 10-12 per cent by weight (approximately the same as is found in many ripe fruits), regardless of whether you are from Japan, Taiwan or Australia.”
But we do not eat tastes, we eat flavors, and what makes us like flavors, says Small, is “flavor nutrient conditioning.” The upside of this process, she says, “is that we can learn to like the foods that are available to us, and avoid particular foods rather than entire classes of nutrients.” Such learning involves a complex chain of activity in the brain, all oriented around understanding what Small calls “flavor objects.” “Our brain and our behavior are geared toward learning about the object—strawberry, for example—rather than its various components. Did this food make me sick? Did this food give me energy? You learn preferences based on the entire flavor object.” Coffee, for example, is just as bitter the 1,000th time we drink it as the first, but, Small notes, “it becomes coffee. The brain has learned that coffee is not a potentially harmful signal.”
In recently presented work, Small is trying to understand, neurologically, how physiological factors can influence the way we eat: “When does the moment kick in where you like it?” Experimental subjects are exposed to novel flavors that have no calories; over a few weeks, one of the flavors has caloric (but tasteless) maltodextrin added. The “post-oral signal” coming from the gut—which is happily converting the maltodextrin into glucose—can, she suggests, alter the response to a flavor. “These post-ingestive signals are getting into the reward circuits” of the brain, “altering the way reward circuits process the flavor, and doing that quite independently of liking,” she says. In short, our liking grows without our quite knowing why.
Our individual taste preferences are echoed in larger taste shifts. McCormick, the Maryland-based flavorings company, has an enormous stake in not only catering to these tastes, but in anticipating and even driving them. It brings thousands of people into sensory-science labs each year. McCormick does not use expert tasters on these “liking” panels—the food industry knows that expert taste does not always reflect mass consumer taste. “When they taste vanilla, they don’t say ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t,’” Marianne Gillette, the company’s vice president of applied research, says of the experts. “They’ll say it has a ‘resonance aroma of 4.2, a vanilla note of 6.8, a woody characteristic of 2.9.’ You never want to ask those panelists how they feel about a product. You don’t want to go to dinner with them either.”
Consumers who cannot pick out dozens of varieties of vanilla (the idea that vanilla should be associated with “plain” rankles Gillette) will be asked to express their liking on the same kind of scale pioneered by the Army. But McCormick has also been developing a scale of its own—aided, as it happens, by a former Natick researcher—that tries to factor how mood and emotion might tie into the liking picture. “Cinnamon is a very loving spice, you use it in breakfast, it might remind you of baking,” says Gillette. “Red pepper is very active and energetic.”
But what about flavors that are not familiar, and thus we have no particular feelings about them? “We talked about chipotle in 2003,” says Kevan Vetter, McCormick’s executive chef, “before people could even pronounce it. Now it’s across all categories—there’s chipotle in frozen food, in seasoned snacks, chipotle ranch dressing, chipotle chocolate.” It became, in a sense, one of Small’s flavor objects. The more we saw it, the more we liked it. That is not always the case. “We had talked about chai as an up-and-coming new flavor, moving out of the beverage category,” Vetter says. “But it never really seemed to be able to bump out of that.” It’s those old processes—expectation and categorization—coming into play. We liked chai, to a certain extent, as chai. And that’s where we wanted it to stay.
Perhaps eating chai chocolate nine times would engender a liking. But most food producers have one chance at exposure. One strategy McCormick employs is to pair the exotic with the familiar. Someone may like the aromatic flavors of Thailand, but not want the “full Thai experience,” Vetter says. “If you put that into something that they can relate to, be it a wing or a chicken sandwich, that steps them into acceptance of Thai flavors.” He calls it a “safe adventure”—a sort of flavor theme park. Start with something easy and branch out from there, like the sushi eater who tentatively begins with a California roll and soon can’t live without flying fish roe.