Au­thor re­searches flavour

Edmonton Journal - - YOU - Lfaul­der@post­media.com

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.