Monday, April 29, 2013

A Bitter Pill, Indeed. Taste, pt 3

What exactly does this phrase mean? It pairs well with “tough to swallow”, which is interesting since swallow has a little something to do with taste (there are taste buds on the epiglottis, which is part of your swallowing mechanism). As a taste, bitter is usually a warning to the body that something isn't quite right. Many natural toxins have a bitter flavor, just a little something to let you know maybe to go easy with whatever it is. It doesn't taste that good at the start, and it is likely to lead to something not so pleasant later on, such as gastric distress or nausea.
Be careful with this one, though. Because this sensation can be unpleasant, it can be used as a defense mechanism by a lot of plants. Plants so packed with nutrients you may otherwise be tempted to consume a lot of it, effectively eradicating it and ruining its chances for survival. This includes a lot of salad greens, such as dandelion and radicchio.
Bitter is a highly personal choice for food items. Naturally, today, we aren’t so concerned with a bitter taste being toxic, as in the case of chocolate or coffee. Food availability doesn’t make toxins a priority with foods we consume (since, in general, we trust our grocers to not get us sick when we purchase the products they sell). Some people genuinely do not like chocolate or enjoy that morning cup of coffee. The flavor profile of these foods simply doesn’t appeal to them.
So, what’s the take-away?
My guess would be while we may enjoy that bitterness in certain places, if you decide to sample an unknown plant on your next nature walk, just go ahead and pass that one by. Especially if it’s bitter.

- Les, MS RD 

Monday, April 15, 2013

This is pretty Sweet, dude. Taste, pt 2

Sweet! It's commonly used to explain something really cool or exciting. This is true on a cellular level, too. The sweet taste often indicates calories, which is exciting to the cells. They can use it for energy to get everything done that needs to get done. Breathing. Heartbeat. Liver and kidney function. My fingers zooming across my keyboard to bring you this information. My brain whirring silently in the background forming thoughts and sentences I think you need to know. Tasting something sweet revs up the body, letting it know fuel is on its way, so get ready for action!
So what exactly happens when we “trick” the mind, giving it something sweet that doesn’t necessarily have all the calories that come with it? Like using a non-caloric sweetener, such as aspartame or stevia, or even changing the way we perceive certain flavors, by eating a miracle berry ( It’s a tricky question with a tricky answer.
Several studies have shown a correlation between artificial sweetener intake (such as diet soda) and weight gain. But it’s important to remember that correlation does not mean causation. Interestingly enough, controlled studies have demonstrated that children are more likely than adults to compensate for calories consumed at the following meal. For example, if a child has a pudding sweetened with sugar (and higher in calories), he will tend to consume less at the next meal, and when he has an artificially sweetened pudding (with fewer calories), he will consume more at the next meal. However, this tendency for children to alter intake in tune with a snack varies greatly with age. Older children and adults do not typically adjust caloric intake when consuming artificially sweetened vs sugar sweetened beverages and snacks. Timing is important, too. Consuming said snacks between meals will reduce intake at the following meal, but if consumed with meals, total calories increases.
Wild, eh?
What’s more – Remember the reward system we talked about last week? As it turns out, there seems to be a partial activation of the reward pathway when consuming non-nutritive (calorie-free) sweeteners. This means that appetite is stimulated, but not totally satisfied, which can lead to an over-consumption of food and calories in an effort to satisfy this hedonic need. Chronic consumption of these sweeteners can lead to further cravings for more sweet things, which can upset flavor balance. Though that might seem ridiculous, remember, we are exploring the components of taste. So if we are going more for sweet things than sour, bitter, salty or savory things, then we could be missing something important associated with all these other great tastes.
To the caveman, sweet meant calories. Sweet as we know it doesn’t mean a whole lot of nutrients – cakes, soda, candy – don’t pack much nutritive bang. But if we move a little closer to the source, such as with fruit, sweet can be a pretty good indicator of nutrients. Vitamins, minerals, fiber, and heck, even water, can all come along with sweet.
For more information:
-- Les, MS RD LD

Monday, April 1, 2013

Taste, pt 1

Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, and the ever elusive Umami (or savory if you prefer).
These are generally recognized to be the five classes of taste. So, you may wonder, is there a difference between taste and flavor? I would have to say that depends who you ask. I've consulted a number of dictionaries, textbooks, and even wikipedia, and the answers vary widely. But I prefer to think of taste as something specific, a single thing you can pinpoint. And flavor is more the overall experience of what's going on. Can something taste both salty and sweet? Sure. And in the right context, it can be downright delicious. But the combination brings you to a whole new level of flavor sensation. So for the sake of my own sanity, as defined here, taste will be something specific, and flavor will bring the taste experience together to bring us a whole dimension of sensation.
Taste is one of the five senses. Taste is also the one sense that is a reward. We actively seek out taste, while the other senses have a tendency to happen to us. That’s not to say that we don’t seek out the other senses as a reward, but rather that taste doesn't just happen to a person.
You may choose to look at certain things – such as a painting you particularly enjoy, or a photo of a loved one – but you also look at things without really meaning to, which may not be quite as pleasant. You may also touch things without really meaning to, such as bumping into someone in a crowded room. What about smell? Smells happen all the time, like when you’re pumping gas. The fumes are in the air, and when you inhale, you really have no choice but to experience them as they come. At present, I’m choosing to listen to some music, but I’m not choosing to hear the air conditioner humming in the background, or the construction going on next door.
But when was the last time taste happened to you? Taste and smell are linked, so sometimes you can smell something pleasant, like dinner in the oven, and the smell is so overpowering and delicious you can almost taste it. Almost. But that’s not quite the same. Even if you taste something unpleasant, odds are the choice was made to have that experience.
So why do we go for certain foods? What is it about your favorite food that makes it your favorite? The reward system I mentioned above has a lot to do with it. Dopamine (which is also involved with the browning of bruised fruit), is partly responsible. Dopamine is released as a part of the reward system that lets the brain know – hey, I like that, do it again! It’s linked to all kinds of things, including social activity in extroverts (1). It’s also been shown to have some links with taste, especially with novel foods. This effect, however, wears off over time, which for now is a phenomenon I’m going to dub “flavor burnout”.
So, I invite you to come along with me on this adventure, to define the tastes. What they are, what they mean, and why we should pay attention.

For a more information:
-- Les, MS RD LD