Unlocking the mysteries of flavor


By Jess Scott Wright, RDN

Since 1980, March has been nationally recognized as National Nutrition Month. The theme for 2016 is “Savor the Flavor of Eating Right,” but with so many factors affecting dietary choice, how much of an impact does taste/flavor influence your decision to make healthy choices?

In their scientific review Early Influence on the Development of Food Preferences, Alison Ventura and John Worobey suggest food preferences regarding taste begin to develop even before birth.

According to Ventura and Worobey, olfactory receptors form by the eighth week of gestation. While olfactory receptors aren’t exactly taste receptors, the synergy of our sense of smell and taste distinguishes taste from flavor.

Have you ever had a stuffy nose and noticed how flavors are muted and less impressive? If not, try tasting something while plugging your nose and see how distorted your sense of taste becomes.

Ventura and Worobey explain, “Flavor perception results from the integration of taste and sensory systems: the combination of odors sensed orthonasally and retronasally with tastes sensed by receptors in the oral cavity is what creates flavor sensations such as vanilla or strawberry.”

Basically, a majority of the flavor experience is through the nose, while taste in the mouth is categorized by sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami or savory.

The ability to taste reflects an innate need for humans to seek out energy-rich carbohydrates and protein sources. Taste also evolved as a survival mechanism, as the bitterness in potentially toxic foodstuffs served as a warning sign to our early ancestors.

Scientists suggest a preference for sweeter foods may be a genetic predisposition. Those carrying the TAS2R38 gene show a marked preference for sweetness and a pronounced distaste for bitter foods such as broccoli and turnips, but genes alone are not the defining criteria for food preference.

Taste, according to Ventura and Worobey, continues to evolve throughout our life cycle. Two things have a profound impact on increasing a young child’s propensity for food acceptance: repeated exposure to a food (between six and 15 times) and a positive social environment.

“Parents may try to mold their children’s food preferences by offering contingencies,” Ventura and Worobey said. For example, telling kids they can’t have dessert until they eat their broccoli is a common parental tactic. Although they mean well, this negative pressure may communicate the message that broccoli is a less preferable food and dessert should be the ultimate desire.

The Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia is a nonprofit, independent organization that focuses its research on the senses of taste and smell. In the center’s studies examining the role of early food preferences, it has been shown that a pregnant mother’s food choices – the flavors dispersed in the amniotic fluid of the womb or through breast milk – have a marked impact on food acceptance later in life.

Monell director Gary Beauchamp and his team are conducting research aimed at figuring out if a preference for sweet food over vegetables are related to the epidemic of food-related illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

In 2011, Scientific American noted a study by Monell in which infants were given formula supplements with varying degrees of bitterness. Researchers fed babies a hydrolyzed casein formula, described as “somewhat bitter, a little sour and oddly savory.”

According to Beauchamp, the flavor caused many adults to throw up the first time they tried it. The babies, however, were more likely to accept the bitter flavor than babies fed breast milk or milk-based formulas with a sweeter flavor profile.

Even though food acceptance begins early in life, tastes can change. As we get older, different elements affect our food preferences, even social pressures. Drinking alcohol is a prime example. “It’s an acquired taste,” is something you’ve likely heard or said.

Do you remember the first time you tasted beer, wine or coffee? It was probably not an experience you would primarily describe as delicious. However, with repeated exposure, many people begin to appreciate the flavors they once found off-putting.

Adaptability is a key element in the successful evolution of humanity throughout history. In a day and age where processed, refined foods are readily available, mindfulness and intention are key in the development of healthy food preferences for yourself and for your children.

You may never like some foods, but next time you find yourself declining to eat something, ask yourself: when is the last time you tried it? Try again; you might be surprised.


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