Monday, May 08, 2017

Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat

Taste is one of the more maligned senses. Vision and hearing are used everyday in our interactions in the world. Touch provides continuous stimulus in our daily activities. Even smell is providing constant clues about our environment. But taste? Even the Greeks thought of it as a baser sense. It seems to only occur as we are indulging ourselves in food. However, taste has evolved in humans for a purpose. The taste of items helps steer us away from things that will hurt us and towards things that can help sustain us. Human's larger and more demanding brains have allowed them to focus on more efficient ways of ingesting calories, allowing us to spend less time eating than our primate cousins. Taste also involves a cultural adaptation, with things appearing tasty in one culture, but repelling in others. (There seem to be a multitude of "rotten fish" or "Stinky cheese" dishes out there.)
Through history there have been some attempts to analyze taste, as well as bogus theories that have endured much longer than they should. (For example, the erroneous "tongue map" that placed difference taste buds in different areas of the tongue was created by an uncorrected game of "telephone".) We have a better understanding today, but there is still a ways to go. Umami has only been recently added to the list of basic tastes. Will there be other tastes added?
Artificial sweeteners are difficult because they have side effects and only work on the taste sensors. However, even if we can't taste sweetness, we are likely to be attracted to it. Hot Peppers trigger a reaction that tricks the body into thinking there is a hot temperature, even though there is not. (It still can be debilitating as is the case with pepper spray.) Repeated exposure can desensitize people to the hotness - and even help them to live longer. Tasty does contains a number of historical tidbits and interesting anecdotes as it looks into the history of taste. However, it feels incomplete. There is not much of an overall narrative tying everything together. There seems to be so much more that could be said about taste. We may just need to discover it first.

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