Taste, Gastronomy, and our Senses

Continuing the study of Gastronomy and still reading Molecular Gastronomy (This, 2002/ 2006), I have been reading the study of taste and of what makes you feel full. This includes analysis of the differences and similarities to humans and animals as well as regional differences.

Studies of the brain show distinctive response to flavors (glutamate is a separate taste than the 4 basic categories of sweet, salty, bitter, and sour; also unami is really a taste) in people with basic differences such as handedness. The direct connection to language centers and motor activity is one of the more interesting aspects. Another is the sensitivity levels developed regionally of long periods (mostly studied in primates) such as the sensitivity to sweetness. You frequently hear about the impact of smell in taste, the interesting part in this study was that taste with no smell activated the same areas of the brain. This makes me wonder if the impact of smell is affecting flavor because it overrides some of the neurochemical response to the taste. How could we use this?

Another study done on MSG showed the interesting result that the hormonal response meant that the body registered the meal as primarily protein when it was primarily starch. This brings up interesting possibilities, if you are including correct nutrition, in how to impact the desires and satiety of people.  Other flavors, their use and their timing in a meal also impact satiety. One can infer from that knowledge and the method taste molecules function why this is true and how to manipulate the process. “Not all taste molecules act in the same fashion. Whereas hydrogen ions (sour taste) and sodium ions (salt taste) act directly on the channels of taste cell membranes, immediately modifying the electrical potential of the cell by adding their electrical charge to its total charge, compounds of sweet, bitter, and other tastes (licorice, for example) bind to molecules known as receptors—no doubt proteins—that are located in the cell membrane, in contact with the extracellular environment.” (This, 2002/ 2006)

Another example of the all encompassing affect of taste that can be manipulated is the connection to vision. Most often translated as the better it looks the better it will taste, the results of research at Columbia show “the transducin that is specific to the cones and rods of the eye in taste receptor cells.” So apparently there is more to that but in a far more base level than commonly understood.

The use of flavors to heighten or mask other flavors is common in cooking but in gastronomy it reaches a new level. Many modern studies in food, taste, and satiety are examining traditions, understanding, and ingredients from other countries and combining the gastronomy between cultures. This means many of the results are, though refinements of that knowledge, more a drawing of knowledge from other places into regional understanding. We have returned in the field of gastronomy to the Victorian era passion to draw from contact with other civilizations and their results.  The mGluR4 protein in the taste receptors transmits neural not sensory information and could be the first step in signaling satiety which is based not on fullness of the stomach but on signals of nutritional content. This means you should also be able to train a person’s response given time. The impact of flavors on taste varies given the mixes used and the specifics could be quite useful. Also the basic flavors have categories in our taste receptors. Bitter especial shows distinctive receptors and various bitter receptors trigger different areas of the brain. This seems truer in bitter than sweet or salty and could make some interesting experimentation.

Other aspects we shall look into at another time are thermal impact on flavor and taste receptors and the impact of sensation such as pain on receptors, brain, and biochemistry of the body. These are all easily manipulatable and modifiable aspects. Also, these are things that can be used to either trick or train the response of a person or animal. These studies have also led to medical treatments of viral and diabetic neuropathies and of rheumatoid arthritis.

Current results are that gastronomy is a varied science with impacts in many areas in and out of the kitchen and is heavily drawn from the 17th and 18th century works in the field. Steampunk in the kitchen could be a fascinating scientific work as well as very interesting fun.

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