What Makes the Food We Eat Delicious?

Eating is necessary for humans to survive, and now many enjoy delicious food created by great cooks from all around the world. I myself am a food lover – I love to eat everything ranging from a regular McDonald’s cheeseburger to an expensive steak served in a Lawry’s. I enjoy travelling to different places to try their famous restaurants and gourmet snacks. So when I learned in class that our sense of taste and smell contribute to what kind of flavor we taste, I wanted to understand more about how we taste what food is good or bad. 

Our taste buds capture five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami. However, this is just the baseline of how we communicate with the food we eat. Describing the food we eat as “sweet” or “umami” is just a simple idea, but our taste buds do much more than just describe which taste we felt while eating that food. Our nose does much to contribute to how we sense which food might taste good. When we pick up a piece of food, the smell goes through our nose and scent receptors pick up the smell in a process called retronasal olfaction.  Our noses have many scent receptors, specifically located in the nasal cavity, and they detect thousands of volatile chemicals that add to the flavor of the food we eat. This process isn’t part of smell or taste, but instead detects flavor. This is why when we smell something so good, our mouths start to water because we want that flavor in our mouths. 

So having a nose is great when eating food because it detects flavor before we eat it. But our scent receptors aren’t just located in our noses, it’s actually located all around our bodies. One location is in the small intestine. Eating glucose instead of injecting it straight into the bloodstream is more effective because the scent receptors located in the intestine will cause hormones to produce more insulin. 

Our scent receptors aren’t all there is to it. Why do some people like eating vegetables more than others? Or why do people enjoy eating garlic so much more than others? That’s because their mothers ate them during pregnancy. Yes, we have flavor preferences that start shaping even before people are born. When a pregnant mother eats garlic, the baby will want the flavor of garlic in breast milk. 

It’s not just our mothers’ eating habits that affect our flavor preferences – nature and the environment can heavily affect ours too. The environment sends cues about how food should taste like. In an experiment about flavor, researchers connected the subjects’ tongues to a low-voltage electronic device, showed them multiple pictures of food and followed that up with a mild shock across the taste buds. The shock would give off a neutral taste. When scientists asked what the shock tasted like, they found that the subjects actually tasted a “singular”, or more than one taste.

Enjoying food doesn’t just come from our taste buds – from the nose all the way to the environment, many factors can affect our way of eating and see how much we admire food.

Citations:

  • Erickson RP. 2008. A study of the science of taste: on the origins and influence of the core ideas. Behav Brain Sci. 31(1):59–75; discussion 75-105.
  • Faking taste with electrical shocks to the tongue is our dystopian food future. Vice.com. [accessed 2021 Mar 2]. https://www.vice.com/en/article/kbz95e/faking-taste-with-electrical-shocks-to-the-tongue-is-our-dystopian-food-future.
  • How does the way food looks or its smell influence taste? 2008 Apr 2. Sci Am. [accessed 2021 Mar 1]. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/experts-how-does-sight-smell-affect-taste/.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Peizheng Li says:

    Hi Justin, I love your post so much! I’m definitely a food lover. I love KFC, spicy Chinese food, Sushi, and various kinds of food. According to your explanation, I’m able to know the relationship between our taste and brain, not only limited to our nose. Besides, it so surprised to know that we have flavor preferences that start shaping even before we are born and it’s even more interesting to know the fact that when a pregnant mother eats garlic, the baby will want the flavor of garlic in breast milk.

  2. Lejun Liu says:

    Hi Justin! I have very similar taste as Peizheng that I love KFC, spiccy Chinese food, all other asian food, and berger/fries, and much more, and reading your blog at night definitely made me hungry! And I completely agree that our preference of food is shaped since we are in the womb. For me, having studied in the US for more than 6 years, I still have a “Chinese stomach”.

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