A MATTER OF TASTE
Author researches flavour
Though information overload assaults modern people from all angles, we know surprisingly little about a vital component in creating pleasure in our lives — the sense of flavour.
As a science writer, holder of a PhD in evolutionary biology and devoted food enthusiast, Edmonton’s Bob Holmes was curious about that gap in common knowledge. He decided to fill the void with his new book, Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense.
The result of more than two years of investigation is a surprisingly easy-to-digest analysis of the latest research. Hard science is combined with fascinating stories about food folks — from celebrity chefs to mathematicians — who toil to please our palates, and also to contribute to the economy. Flavour, after all, is not only key to what happens at the dinner table; it is also at the heart of the Canadian food and beverage processing sector — the second largest manufacturing industry in Canada, with shipments worth $105.5 billion in 2014.
Holmes launches Flavor at the Telus World of Science (11211 142 St.) today during an event called Suds and Science, when participants over 18 can enjoy an exploration of the palate, complete with beer sampling, starting at 7 p.m.
A $15 admission fee applies. I spoke to Holmes about the role of flavour in our lives. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Q Most things about our bodies serve an evolutionary purpose. What does flavour contribute to our survival?
A Part of it is teaching us what is safe to eat and not. But flavour is more than that; it’s something that your brain assembles from the components of taste and smell, and the feel of things in your mouth, like the burn of chilies and the cool of mint. Even things like sight and sound, and your expectations, figure into flavour.
Q Why do flavours and smells trigger nostalgic thoughts?
A More directly than most senses, flavour, especially taste and smell, gets processed in an older, more primitive part of the brain first, the reacting part, the emotional part. Only later do they get processed by the thinking part of the brain. The Proust experience (with the cakes known as madeleines) is probably true, that we do have these emotional connections with the foods of our childhood.
Q There are four basic flavours: sour, sweet, bitter and salty. Now we’ve added umami to the mix. How did it end up making the list?
A It’s there because it’s clearly a basic taste. They found a receptor for it relatively recently. The Japanese have said for 100 years that umami was a basic taste. It’s there on your tongue and they can show what activates the receptor and those are the things that have umami taste and flavour. For me, the word savoury is what comes closest to explaining it. It’s what’s in soy sauce and mushrooms, meat broth and tomatoes.
But it’s not as vivid a flavour as the others. You never encounter pure umami; it’s usually mixed with salt. But the other thing is our umami receptors saturate at a low concentration, so they are incapable of detecting a really intense umami flavour.
Q What is the largest component of flavour?
A It’s definitely smell, in terms of filling in the details. Pinch your nose and pop a fancy jelly bean into your mouth. You’ll have no idea what it is until you smell it. That said, taste may be more important in keeping you interested in eating.
People who lose their sense of taste, after suffering head or neck cancer, generally have a hard time eating and they lose a lot of weight. I did an experiment for the book with a researcher from Philadelphia who knew how to block salty and sweet taste. So we tried it and had a hamburger afterwards, and it was like eating cardboard.
Q They say you taste first with your eyes. Is that true from a scientific perspective?
A Sight figures in as well, partly because it sets expectations. There is this really famous experiment when they took students in a wine program at the university at Bordeaux and gave them a tasting. A white and two reds. But one of the red wines was the white wine with red food colouring added.
Because they saw it was red, the tasters’ expectations found them finding all the usual red wine descriptors, like blackberry and cherry, instead of lemon, lime and peach as they would in a white wine.
Another study shows strawberries taste sweeter on a white plate than on a black plate. The red contrasts more with the white plate and triggers the expectation for sweetness from a nice red berry.
Sound figures in a little bit as well. Another famous study shows if you hear a louder crunch with potato chips, they are perceived as tasting fresher.
Scientist and food enthusiast Bob Holmes of Edmonton has a new book out, Flavor: The Science of our Most Neglected Sense.