A Flavor Quest

He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton; he who does not, cannot be otherwise.


| October/November 1997



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Flavor is one measure of food’s goodness. We want what we put in our mouths to sing and zing and make us happy. We sit down at the dinner table to experience both subtlety and boldness in our food, complex flavors that intrigue us, simple good tastes that remind us of moms and grandmas, flavor that plays on our tongues and fills our mouths and adds gusto to our lives. Herbs, spices, and other seasonings satisfy our senses with full, rich flavor while we go about the business of keeping ourselves healthy and energetic.

Over a lifetime, we catalog tastes and build up an inventory of likes and dislikes, favorite foods, tastes we seek out and those we avoid. Why do people react differently to the same taste? We’ve all seen one child spit out a food that another gobbles eagerly. Some people are passionate about cilantro while others wouldn’t serve it to a stray dog.

Detecting and reacting to flavor is a complex process that involves more than simply touching food to taste buds. We know flavor through taste, certainly, and also aroma, texture, and temperature. In fact, food can be a total sensory experience, involving even sight (it’s hard to imagine enjoying ugly food) and sound (just ask a potato-chip manufacturer). We also bring to the table our prejudices, habits, past experiences, and associations.

Open your mouth

Taste buds are barrel-shaped clusters of cells connected to sensory nerves that transmit taste to the brain’s thalamus and then on to an area in the cerebral cortex. Taste buds were discovered by a seventeenth-century physician—an Italian, wouldn’t you know it?—Marcello Malpighi, the founder of microscopic anatomy, who with his microscope was also the first to see red blood cells and other important little body parts.

We have on the order of 10,000 taste buds, each one lasting not much longer than a week before it is shed and regenerated. Taste buds are selective, detecting one or more of only four different flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. A map of the mouth would show that the taste buds sensitive to sweet tastes are concentrated on the tip of the tongue; sour, along the sides; bitter, at the back of the tongue and along the back of the roof of the mouth; and salt, distributed fairly evenly over the surface of the tongue. Licking an ice cream cone with the tip of your tongue makes it seem all the sweeter.

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter: these and combinations of these are the only flavors that a taste bud recognizes. Every other flavor that we know—the bite of a chile pepper, the cool menthol of a mint, the heady pineyness of rosemary, the pungency of garlic, or the warm spiciness of cinnamon, to name only a few—is perceived mainly through its aroma. The sense of taste is so intimately tied to the sense of smell as to be indistinguishable from it. Food doesn’t taste as good when you have a stuffed-up nose because you aren’t getting its full fragrance and all that that contributes to the flavor.





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