We’ve all tried to lose weight at some point or another in our lives. And every time the dietary advice is the same – eat healthy, limit your sugar intake, and consume more fruits and vegetables. Yeesh. Who hasn’t been hit with that spiel? The problem is that for a lot of people, vegetables taste like the harvest of Satan’s garden. Who wants to boil broccoli and wash kale when easy, potato-chippy satisfaction is just around the corner? Who craves a rutabaga or a hearty beet stew when a pizza is only a phone call away?
Tastes may be acquired, but they’re also an extremely formative part of our lives from a young age. Your sense of taste might seem as though its’ extremely complex, but in reality it’s quite simple: there are only five “main” tastes that the brain can process; mixing and matching different sensations from the food we eat creates different flavours that we experience. According to our brains, food might taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or “umami” – a Japanese word that roughly translates to “savoury,” and encompasses things like meat broths, tomatoes, and soy sauce.
There’s a reason for all this madness: at one time taste was probably the only thing standing between a young child and imminent death. Stone Age toddlers probably put foreign objects in their mouths a lot (no change there); sweet foods were probably safe to eat, and things that tasted rotten and bitter weren’t to be trusted. Ten thousand years ago, these instincts probably served us well. Unfortunately, a lot of us are still wracked by the desire to eat sweet foods; in an age where foods keep getting sweeter, fattier, and less healthy, we’re creating a dangerous feedback loop where our collective tolerance for certain foods are being permanently altered. Already, plenty of us – myself included – treat vegetables as a necessary evil that must be tolerated. As a result, we’re less likely to reach for the broccoli than we for are the chocolate bar, hence, obesity is on the rise.
Is there hope? A group of scientists at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Sciences Center are searching for a new way to make veggies appetizing – not by changing the food, but by altering the parts of our brains responsible for tasting food. Scientists refer to this exciting new neurological discovery as “neurogastronomy.” The basic crux of neurogastronomy emphasizes the importance that odors play in our sense of taste – what would steak be without that smoky flavour, for instance? When we bite into something, some of the molecules bind to taste receptors on the tongue, forming one of the big five flavours, while other odor molecules hit the back of the nose. Both of these sensations merge with taste to form the subtler and more refined tastes that we’re familiar with. In the lab, scientists are using neurogastronomy to assist patients through the use of strategically deployed odors and foods – for instance, in dealing with cravings – without the need for traditional medications.
As it pertains to nutrition, we’re learning that tastes are acquired, not inbuilt. Someday soon, scientists may even be able to use neurogastronomy to influence the tastes of humans, and, yes, make broccoli taste like chocolate.