As we’ve seen over the course of this adventure into taste, these sensations can often have different meanings to the body. Have you ever craved something sour? Does the thought of your favorite oil-and-vinegar dressing on a sandwich make your mouth water? Ever wondered why?
As it happens, acids have a particularly sour taste. (If you are wondering, bases are rather bitter). This includes citrus juices such as lemon, lime or orange. Vinegar is primarily acetic acid and water. Acids (and bases) also happen to be pretty important to the body. This is a popular topic for nutrition blogs. You don’t have to go far to find yet another article or post about the importance of acid/base balance and eating an “alkaline diet” vs an “acidic diet”.
But what does this mean, really? And why do people get so excited about it?
Let’s start at the beginning. pH balance is important. Your body has an optimum pH range, and it’s pretty small – 7.35-7.45. It’s slightly alkaline (or basic). This is not only the optimum range for your body to operate, but if you leave this range by much (or for very long), your body will enter either acidosis (if it drops) or alkalosis (if it rises). Either of these conditions is fatal. It makes sense, then, that the body would have any number of ways to help maintain this pH, even if your diet isn’t perfectly pH balanced.
Please, take a moment to thank your lungs and kidneys.
The lungs use oxygen and carbon dioxide (breathe in, breathe out) to maintain blood pH. If this pH begins to move in either one direction or the other, the lungs will help bring it back in check by regulating your breathing to optimize the CO2/O2 exchange (think about hyperventilation here). The kidneys use a slightly different mechanism to do the same thing – they will balance hydrogen ions (H+) by either pulling them from the blood to excrete them (in urine), or by releasing the back into the bloodstream.
Remember, our understanding of these systems is relatively new. After all, humans have been eating both acid (meat, flour) and alkaline (fruits, vegetables) foods for a very long time. And somehow we managed to survive thousands of years without epidemics of alkalosis or acidosis.
Many of these articles will tout the importance of an alkaline diet because an acidic diet will deplete calcium from the bones. There’s a certain degree of logic to this, and it has to do with using phosphorus to help balance the acidity of the foods in your diet. Long story short, calcium and phosphorus are pretty closely related, and this can cause a change in the mineral composition of your bones… over time. But fear not, there’s an easy way to keep this from happening. And I’ll give you my secret, because I’m feeling particularly generous today.
Balance your diet.
It makes sense if you spend your time consuming acidic foods – such as soda – health problems will follow. It also makes sense that if you eat a balance of foods (acidic included) you’ll be healthier overall. Fruits and vegetables are considered to have an “alkaline effect” in the body, but this principle alone doesn’t dictate why we should eat these foods. Plant based foods also have vitamins and minerals that are harder to come by in acidic foods, such as meat. They also have fiber, which can have some very positive effects not only on digestion, but cholesterol and blood sugar. Meats also have vitamins and minerals that aren’t as easy to find in plants. The protein in these foods is also more readily available to the body.
Besides, acids, which are sour, have been shown to have some pretty interesting effects in the body. As it happens, studies have shown that sour foods and beverages, such as lemonade, shorten pharyngeal transit time (the time it takes you to swallow). If you have dysphagia – trouble swallowing, which is seen primarily in older adults and people with certain medical conditions – this is a pretty big deal, since sour foods have been shown to improve the ability to swallow safely (1, 2, 3).
Sour tastes also stimulate the salivary glands. For people with persistent dry mouth (which can be caused by a number of diseases and medications), a few drops of lemon in a glass of water can help get the salivary glands going. After all, without your daily 3 pints of saliva, swallowing, talking and chewing can become a chore.
Who ever said being a sourpuss was a bad thing?
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-- Les, MS RD LD