Why am I always dousing my eggs in hot sauce while my dad winces at the faintest chile heat? Why do I believe beets embody deliciousness while they rank at the top of your "utterly disgusting" list?
Prize-winning veteran journalist Bruce Feiler weighs in on this question and a host of others in a fascinating article Gourmet story about the fast-changing science of taste. Flavor chemist Terry Acree from Cornell University says, "Flavor chemistry is finished." He explains:
“Flavor chemistry is finding the chemical molecules that are important to aroma and taste. We spent decades doing this. But the other side of the equation is what’s been missing: how these chemicals interact with our bodies. That’s the part we’re getting to now.”
And they are getting there, thanks to big breakthroughs, many accelerated by the decoding of the human genome in 2003. By isolating the genome's individual taste receptors, scientists can begin to understand how we respond to every flavor known (and perhaps unknown) to humankind. <!--
'There Are No Basic Tastes'
It is common knowledge that there are four basic tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, and salty. Recently, there has been buzz about taste number five: umami, which means something like savory or hearty.
But our common knowledge is wrong. Michael O’Mahony, a sensory scientist at the University of California, Davis, says "There are no basic tastes."
Taste happens when chemicals are dissolved in saliva. The chemicals collide with about 40 tiny receptors, grouped not just on the tongue but all over the inside of the mouth. The receptors convert the chemical into a nerve impulse, which is then transmitted to the brain. Since we all have different brains, we interpret the messages differently. Some think, "yum;" others think, "gross." Some, "moderately spicy;" others, "unbearably hot."
New Ways to Play with Food
But the implications go far beyond the realization that our four-flavor paradigm is woefully inadequate. More knowledge means more way to enhance, block, and play with how food tastes.
Certain chefs, including Ferran Adrià of Spain's El Bulli and Heston Blumenthal of England's The Fat Duck, use chemistry in the kitchen to play with their foods' flavors in unconventional ways. Chris Young, a chemist who worked as a food-research manager at The Fat Duck, gives a suggestion for how taste-blockers can be used:
“Savory ice cream. Sugar is inherently necessary to get the particular texture that ice cream has. You need it to depress the freezing point and give you enough solids. But for a true savory ice cream, you’d need to use sugar but block the sweet taste.”
It follows, then, that one day we might call for a reservation with the time we would like to dine and the 411 on our genome. The chef could use this information to cook up a meal we are genetically destined to love.
Getting a little sci-fi? Culture plays a roll, too. Although I might be genetically inclined to detest coffee, I could get used to a cup in the morning and find myself craving it. I could learn to love Brussels sprouts (mmm, Brussels sprouts...), a fine single-malt, or tofu, even though my DNA predisposes me to be more of a broccoli, beer, and burger girl.
There's still a lot to learn, but it seems as if the possibilities are vast. -->