Our Quirky Sense of Taste

Stephen DeAngelis

November 19, 2013

The cover story for the November issue of CGT Magazine discusses how McCormick’s FlavorPrint program is inspiring consumers. The article also mentions that Enterra Solutions was one of McCormick’s partners that helped make FlavorPrints possible. Written by Alliston Ackerman, the article entitled “Leaving a Mark,” states: “The concept for FlavorPrint emerged as the culmination of many good ideas from across the organization at a time when McCormick was looking for opportunities to innovate in the digital space. It’s subsequent development was the result of close collaboration between internal teams — from information technology to marketing, sensory, test kitchens and sales — and external resources, like R/GA, its digital agency of record, and Enterra Solutions, LLC, a cloud-based, intelligent supply chain technology company.” I believe the FlavorPrint project has caught on because taste preferences are so personal.

A couple of years ago, Lisa Bramen wrote, “One of my co-workers has all kinds of rules about the foods she likes and dislikes: No cooked fruit (too sweet and mushy). No ‘sweet meat’ (no barbecue sauce!). No raw tomatoes.” [“The Genetics of Taste,” Food & Think, 21 May 2010] We all have food preferences — foods we like, foods we hate, and lots of foods we tolerate. Bramen provided a few more examples of such preferences:

“Another friend pretty much only likes foods that are beige: pasta, potatoes, creamy sauces. Nothing too spicy or tangy. She once came to an Indian restaurant with my family for a birthday celebration. We had to take her to McDonald’s afterward. Some people will eat just about anything, but most of us have a few food rules of our own. My big no-nos are cilantro (tastes like glass cleaner) and mushrooms (tastes like mildew and feels like snails), other than certain flavorful wild or Asian varieties. I’m also not a huge fan of saffron (which I think tastes like dirty dishwater), though I can tolerate it [when it] doesn’t overwhelm other flavors. I love foods that are spicy, tangy or sweet — preferably at the same time — and garlic, lots of it.”

Such dramatic differences beg the question that Bramen next asked, “How did we come by these strong flavor preferences, and why do they vary so much from person to person?” Some of those preferences, Bramen noted, could have come from exposure to different flavors while we growing in the womb or, afterwards, feeding on breast milk. Thanks, mom! But, Bramen wrote, “Genetics probably has more to do with our initial taste preferences than second-hand exposure to foods.” She wrote:

“It isn’t just Mom who has a role in determining what we like to eat: the way we perceive some flavors is coded in our DNA. One of the first discoveries of this phenomenon was in 1931, when a chemist named Arthur Fox was working with powdered PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) and some of it blew into the air. A colleague in the room commented that the powder tasted bitter, while Fox detected no flavor at all. They conducted an experiment among friends and family, and found wide variation in how (and whether) people perceived the flavor of the PTC. Geneticists later discovered that the perception of PTC flavor (which, although it doesn’t occur in nature, is similar to naturally occurring compounds) was based in a single gene, TAS2R38, that codes for a taste receptor on the tongue. There are multiple versions of this gene, accounting for the variation in how strongly bitter flavors are detected.”

An article in the Connersville Indiana Towncow reports, “Researchers say that an aversion to bitter and sour (generally a heightened gag reflex) is a survival instinct, since most toxins taste that way too. On the other hand, sweetness typically indicates that something is safe to eat, so children are born with a preference for sweets.” [“Why Do Kids Hate Brussels Sprouts?” 23 June 2012] The article continues:

“If someone is unable to detect flavors at all, he may have a taste disorder, which can be caused by a tongue injury or brain damage. Or it could be a problem with smell. The channel that separates the mouth from the nose allows us to smell retronasally (literally, behind our nose) and is crucial for enjoying most complex flavors. That’s why food seems flavorless when we have a stuffy nose — except chicken noodle soup. It’s so salty.”

Genetics could also be at play here. Research published online last year in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, concluded, “Obese kids have less sensitive taste-buds than kids of normal weight.” [“Obese Children Have Less Sensitive Taste-Buds Than Those of Normal Weight,” Fitness Without Borders, 19 September 2012] The article continues:

“This blunted ability to distinguish all five tastes of bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami (savoury) may prompt them to eat larger quantities of food in a bid to register the same taste sensation, suggest the authors. … Obese children were significantly less likely to identify the individual taste sensations correctly, particularly salty, umami [savory], and bitter. And while both obese and normal weight children correctly identified all the differing levels of sweetness, obese kids rated three out of the four intensity levels lower than kids of normal weight. Similarly, children of normal weight were better able to distinguish the different taste sensations, the older they were, but this trend was not seen among the obese children. Exactly why people have differing taste perceptions is unclear, but genes, hormones, acculturation and exposure to different tastes early in life are all thought to play a part, say the authors. But previous research indicates that heightened sensitivity to different taste sensations may help to reduce the amount of food eaten as less is required to get the same ‘taste hit.'”

At Enterra Solutions, we are beginning to think that studying sensory relationships is going to be more important in the future — for both consumers and manufacturers. Michelle Sutton-Kerchner asks, “Wouldn’t [staying healthy] be simple if we craved healthy food?” [“A Sense of Taste: Nurture or Nature?,” F&W News, 23 October 2013] She continues:

“By understanding your preference for certain tastes, it might be easier to eat better. Taste is the most personal of our senses. With other senses, we see the same image, hear the same sound, feel the same texture, smell the same scent. … However, we never can be totally certain how one person perceives a specific flavor. Whether it is too sweet, spicy, or salty is, well, in the taste buds of the beholder. And, how do we know for sure a cookie tastes the same for everyone? Perhaps it is liked or disliked because it actually tastes different to different eaters. Research has long investigated the origin of taste preferences. It is another debate of nurture versus nature. A recent study published in the journal Obesity indicated genes are a significant factor in a child’s tendency to avoid new foods, called food neophobia. Genes outweighed environment by 72 percent of the four- to seven-year-olds studied. Previous studies already proved this genetic predisposition in older children and adults. … As researchers further understand the influence of genetics on food choices, not just the reluctance to be adventurous with new tastes, better nutrition can be constructed from childhood years. Strategies can be created for healthier mealtimes, which hopefully include a broader variety of foods.”

Barb Stuckey, executive vice president of food-and-beverage development firm Mattson, believes that, to some extent, most Americans are neophobes. She asserts that the tongue is a muscle as much as an organ and “the best way to exercise it, if you want to make the most difference to your waistline, is not to flex or fatigue it, but to stretch it.” [“For Healthy Eating, Bitter Is Better,” Wall Street Journal, 25 May 2012] Stuckey offers five ways to help “stretch” your palate, but those recommendations mostly boil down to keep trying things until you acquire a taste for them. Registered dieticians Mary Mullen and Jo Ellen Shield encourage parents to stretch the palates of their children. They write:

“Being a picky eater can be a natural state for young children. They are born with an instinctive desire for sweet and salty foods, and an instinctive aversion to sour and bitter tastes. These instincts are a trait left over from our ‘caveman’ days. Back then, the reflex to reject sour-bitter foods served as a survival mechanism so that youngsters wouldn’t wander off and nibble on poisonous plants and berries – many of which are not sweet. Today, however, this reflex is one of the key reasons so many kids become picky eaters and shun fruits and vegetables. Luckily, kids can eventually overcome this tendency by being repeatedly exposed to foods they initially reject. Just be patient.” [“Why Is My Child a Picky Eater?Kids Eat Right]

I agree that the more we understand our senses, especially our sense of taste, the more likely we are to eat right, stay healthier, and live longer. It would help if those darn genes didn’t keep getting in the way.