A Matter of Taste

Stephen DeAngelis

June 15, 2012

In several past posts, I’ve noted that companies with international ambitions need to be cognizant of cultural differences that could affect how consumers react to their products. IKEA, for example, has recently been in the news because the names of some of its products, when translated into Thai, were “naughty” and had to be changed. McDonald’s certainly notices and offers a different menu in Beijing than it does in New York. For food and beverage companies, it’s obviously a matter of taste. When it comes to taste, Leo Coleman asks some intriguing questions: “Is there an instinct for food, some kernel of common taste hidden deep within the vast array of cuisines and food cultures? Does a ‘theory of food’ guide our choice of foods, our idea of what counts as a full meal or a desirable snack?” [“An Accounting For Taste,” Wall Street Journal, 20 May 2012] Coleman, an assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University, is reviewing a book by John S. Allen, a neuroanthropologist, entitled “The Omnivorous Mind,” in which Allen “explores our biological equipment for taste and the ways in which each culture builds a unique cuisine upon a shared cognitive blueprint.” Coleman continues:

“[Allen] observes, for instance, that crispness seems to be a desirable quality of foods, whether in the crunchy crickets treated as a delicacy by some cultures or in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Such universals suggest that a deeply ingrained culinary capacity is an essential part of every human’s ‘biocultural’ equipment, comparable to the cognitive capacities for language and empathy that indisputably marked important frontiers in human evolution.”

For companies whose primary business is delivering the flavors that people enjoy, finding a few universal traits could mean a lot of money for them. Coleman notes that “it has long been clear to theorists that the big brains of evolutionarily ‘modern’ humans demand special nutrition.” But nutrition and taste are two different things. Modern humans, especially those living in America, love some foods that have little nutritional value. According to Coleman’s review, Allen concludes “that modern humans must have evolved a range of cognitive and biological adaptations, including … a willingness and capacity to experiment with new food substances (and the fortitude to withstand the effects of failed experiments).” I have often wondered what prompted the monk who supposedly discovered blue cheese to put moldy food in his mouth or which soul was brave enough to taste the next mushroom species after watching his or her colleagues drop dead from eating a poisonous variety. Coleman continues:

“Whatever allowed groups of early humans to move into new ecological niches cannot explain culinary preferences in the present. Evolutionary advantages were no doubt won by adaptability to multiple sources of good nutrients; but our omnivorous minds draw on and use food in a range of symbolic and social activities that cannot be reduced to nutrition, reward-seeking or cognitive patterning. This stands true for early humans as much as for the fast-food consumer who is sustained not just by fat and calories but also by seductive advertising images of the good life, by promises of efficiency and reliability, and by money left over after an affordable meal. Mr. Allen aims to address an audience interested in the current politics of food, but understanding the contemporary food system requires more economic and cultural insight than is on display here. The way we eat now certainly represents a radical change from the food environments in which humans evolved.”

Coleman indicates that Allen concludes “there is no single neural center or network devoted to collating experiences of taste but rather a dispersed ‘gustatory cortex’ that links many brain functions.” Coleman writes, “The lack of a dedicated brain center for food processing (as it were) only means that when we are pulled into the past by a potent taste, or find ourselves taking another helping of a comfort food, we must turn for insight not to evolutionary theory but to the writers, poets and artists who, at the cost of experimental precision, manage to convey something of the quiddity and particularity of human taste.” The fact remains that different people are drawn to different flavors for many reasons. Even children growing up in the same household find themselves liking different things.

Getting back to subject of nutrition, Corby Kummer believes that technology may help put nutrition back into the foods we eat, even if they are processed. [“Can Technology Save Breakfast?Smithsonian, June 2012] He writes:

“Technology and food aren’t supposed to go together in any context but angry scorn. Technology and industry, in unholy collusion with all forms of media, are responsible for most every ill that food has anything to do with. … But maybe the food industry can re-nature products. Maybe it can make the best of the food we care about—whole grains, fiber, and vitamins, minerals and antioxidants—convenient and accessible. Sure, it’s unlikely. But not impossible. If technology, scale, industrialization and relentless marketing have been the forces of nutritional evil, maybe they can be the forces of nutritional salvation.”

Kummer rails against the use of artificial flavors and processed foods, yet readily admits that he loves eating dry breakfast cereals. As a result, most of his article focuses on that food product. One of the individuals he interviewed for his article was John Mendesh, a vice president in research and development at the Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, an R&D lab for General Mills. Kummer writes that Mendesh has two maxims: “All food is processed” and “It’s not nutrition if people don’t eat it.” Susan Crockett, director of the Bell Institute, told Kummer that making foods healthier without reducing taste is a difficult matter. She calls the process “stealth health,” which is “the ‘stepwise’ reduction of fats, say, in Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits, or sodium in Progresso soups, or sugar in kid cereals.”

Kummer reports that “since 2005 [General Mills] has increased whole grains by 40 percent, and since 2004 increased the amount of its R&D budget focused on health by 75 percent.” He continues:

“Sodium reduction is the stealthiest: an announced five-year, 20 percent reduction in 400 products by 2015, including several cereals, and a roughly similar reduction in some Progresso soups. Anyone who makes soup understands how unappetizing low-salt soup is, Crockett told me. ‘I’ve tried to sell low-sodium soup to family and I’ve been unsuccessful.’ This is part of the reason companies make change slowly, and a history of bland or off-tasting ‘healthy’ foods explains the reluctance of companies to advertise lower sodium on packages.”

Kummer reports that General Mills isn’t the only food processing company that is actively researching how to make foods more palatable and healthier. He writes:

“The world’s largest food company, Nestlé, maintains a campus-like research facility near Lausanne, Switzerland. At the center, which includes a pilot plant for manufacturing test batches of liquid, powdered and other processed foods, 350 scientists (the staff numbers 700) measure responses to taste receptors on the tongue using a ‘gustometer,’ a device that looks like an old telephone switchboard with stacks of metal bars for each taste receptor, on which a machine precisely deposits bits of food. Partly based on the result of gustometer findings, Nestlé started making some of its chocolate bars with squares that have sloped indentations like the swooping roof of a Le Corbusier chapel (rather than the usual flat top), which it says gives a more intense and longer-lasting flavor by changing the rate at which it melts and the way it makes contact with the palate. … The area of experimentation that most caught my interest uses enzymes to break down whole grains and cereals into easier-to-digest powders that can be sneaked into foods like cake mixes and light breads in which whole grains would be unpalatably heavy, and into foods where you’d never expect to find them: soups, sauces, puddings and creamy fillings that already have starch in some form. ‘Why not whole-grains starch?’ asked Monica Fischer, head of the food science and technology department. Breaking down the grains can also create sweetness, which raises the possibility of substituting whole grains for sugar in certain products.”

Another company heavily involved in research and development is McCormick & Company. Five years ago the company founded the “McCormick Science Institute (MSI), a research organization dedicated to advancing scientific knowledge of the potential health benefits of culinary spices and herbs.” [“McCormick Science Institute Celebrates Five Years of Research Focused on Food and Health,” Press Release, 8 November 2011] The release continues:

“Working with nutrition scientists and a 13-member Scientific Advisory Council made up of some of the world’s most renowned nutrition and wellness experts, MSI funds independent studies in five areas related to spices and herbs: antioxidants and phytonutrients, anti-inflammatory properties, weight management, cardiovascular health, and overall wellness including cognitive performance. These studies have been designed and implemented at universities including UCLA, Johns Hopkins, the University of Georgia, Penn State and Purdue. Over the past five years, MSI has supported 17 studies investigating the health benefits of spices and herbs. Recent studies funded by MSI have provided new insights on specific benefits, including red pepper’s positive impact on weight management; ginger’s reduction of muscle pain after exercise; high antioxidant spices and heart health measures including improved arterial function and lower blood triglycerides; and antioxidant-rich spices and total antioxidant capacity of the blood.”

Some of MSI’s work complements work being done in other R&D facilities, especially concerning how to reduce sodium in foods. The release explains, “McCormick-funded MSI research currently underway includes an investigation at Johns Hopkins University into whether herbs and spices can help consumers adhere to a low-sodium diet.” The release continues:

“The Institute … provides standardized spices on a complimentary basis to qualified researchers studying healthy humans. ‘People have long known about the healthful properties of natural spices and herbs, and now there is growing scientific evidence about their multiple benefits,’ said Dr. Hamed Faridi, Chief Science Officer at McCormick. ‘This field of study is more relevant than ever as scientists continue to discover the unique compounds in plant-foods that hold tremendous potential to enhance the quality of our diets and protect our health.'”

I’m sure there are similar efforts going on around the world at other companies. The point is that Kummer could be correct; technology could save breakfast along with lunch and dinner. It’s all a matter of taste.