10 Things We’ve Learned About Taste

Do following rituals before a meal make the food taste better? What about the ambience of the room in which you’re eating it?

It’s time to give thanks for your taste buds. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Phil Denton

Tomorrow, most Americans will say they are grateful for many things–except, chances are, for the one thing they should be most thankful for when they sit down to the table.

I’m talking about our sense of taste, a faculty more nuanced than sight or hearing or touch, and one that’s become sadly under appreciated as eating has turned into just another thing we multi-task.

But this is a holiday during which the sense is celebrated, if only for a few hours. We savor flavors again, slow down enough to remember there are actually five distinct tastes we experience–sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, or meaty–instead of one indefinable gulp of bland.

In that spirit, let’s pay due respect to taste with a rundown of what research has taught us this year about the sense.

1) Eating more, enjoying it less: Last week, a team of University at Buffalo biologists published a study concluding that obesity can actually change how food tastes. At least that’s what they found in mice. They determined that compared to their slimmer peers, severely overweight mice had fewer taste cells that responded to sweetness, and that the cells that did respond did so weakly. Explained lead researcher Kathryn Medler: “What we see is that even at this level–at the first step in the taste pathway–the taste receptor cells themselves are affected by obesity.”

2) And no, it can’t make everything taste like bacon: It probably was just a matter of time, but scientists in Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food to the tongue. And that, they say, could make it possible for a person to virtually taste food being prepared on a cooking show or featured in a video game. The researchers said the taste simulator could also be used to let diabetes patients taste sweetness without eating sweets.

3) Reason #200 that getting old stinks: As we get older, our response to different tastes changes, according to research on rats by Japanese scientists. They found that young rats love sugary and meaty flavors in foods, but really hated bitter ones. Older rats had just the opposite reaction–they were less enamored of sweets and umami flavors, but didn’t have nearly the aversion to bitter tastes as the young ones.

4) Who eats cheese with a spoon?: Apparently, the utensil you use to consume food can affect how you perceive its flavor. Among the findings of a team of researchers from Oxford University: If yogurt is eaten with a light plastic spoon, people tend to think it tastes denser and more expensive. Or when white yogurt was eaten with a white spoon, it was judged to be sweeter and more expensive than pink yogurt. But if a black spoon was used, the pink yogurt was thought to be sweeter. And one more: When cheese was eaten from a toothpick, spoon, fork and knife, it was rated saltiest when a knife was used.

5) But it’s still weird to keep different foods from touching on your plate: If you engage in some kind of ritual before you eat food, you are more likely to enjoy it, concludes a study published in Psychological Science. In one of several experiments they performed on the subject, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that people who were instructed to first break a chocolate bar in half, unwrap one half and eat it, then repeat the process with the other half rated the treat higher–and were willing to pay more money for it–than people who were told to eat the chocolate however they wanted.

6) Like, it always tastes better if you say “Arrgh” first: According to a study by a psychologist at the University of Oxford, the environment in which whiskey is imbibed can make a difference in how it tastes. A group of about 500 people who weren’t whiskey connoisseurs were asked to taste a single-malt Scotch in three different settings: a room with a turf floor, the sound of baa-ing sheep and the smell of fresh-cut grass; another with a sweet fragrance and a high-pitched tinkling sound; and the third with wood paneling, the sound of leaves crunching and the smell of cedar. According to their ratings on scorecards, they found the whiskey in the first room “grassier,” the Scotch in the second room “sweeter” and their drinks in the third room “woodier.” Although it was all the same Scotch, the study participants said they liked the whiskey they tasted in the “woody” room the most.

7) Beer wins again!: And while we’re on the subject, just the taste of alcohol can set off a release of dopamine in the brain. Scientists at the University of Indiana did brain scans of 49 men who first tasted beer and then Gatorade, and the researchers saw that the dopamine activity was much higher after men tasted the beer. The study also found that the dopamine release was greater among the men with a history of alcoholism in their families.

8) Even then, they didn’t hold the mustard: As long as 6,000 years ago, humans were spicing up their food. Researchers found evidence of garlic mustard in the residue left in pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. Because garlic mustard has little nutritional value, the scientists from the University of York believe that it was used to add flavor to meals. The findings run counter to the conventional wisdom that ancient humans were solely focused on eating food to give them strength and endurance.

9) Must not work with fries: Taste sensors in the tongue have evolved so that while animals like salt, they are repulsed when something is too salty. This triggers the same avoidance response as when something is found to be too bitter or sour, according to a study published in the journal Nature earlier this year. In fact, said the researchers, mice that had been genetically engineered to be unable to detect bitter or sour tastes couldn’t gauge when they were consuming too much salt.

10) That’s right, “mutant cockroaches”: A strain of mutant cockroaches apparently has evolved to the point where they are now repulsed by the glucose in the sugar traps meant to catch them. A team of scientists in North Carolina tested the theory by giving hungry cockroaches a choice of glucose-rich jelly or peanut butter. And this particular type of cockroach recoiled at the taste of jelly while swarming over the peanut butter. Additional analysis of the pests’ taste receptors showed that they now perceive jelly–and therefore sweet flavors–as a bitter taste.

Video bonus: Just in case you want visual evidence of the above discovery about the mutant pests, check out this BBC video of a cockroach taste test.

Video bonus bonus: A dirty little secret is that at some point all parents mess with their babies, like when they get them to taste a lemon for the first time.

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