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Taste to remember

or why the brain has more to do with your lunch than the stomach

Everybody has a certain relationship with food, from foodies to anorexics, food is the main drive in our lives. As one of our basic needs and our main source of energy it fulfills more than just our Polyphagia, as white coats use with sophistication to describe hunger. Our bodies need food and also reacts to it in more than just physical intake of energy. As we climb higher on the Maslow’s scale from being able to chew on live kicking grasshoppers to prevent starvation, our needs evolve level by level to whimsical demands. There is added value to energy consumption – flavour, and as basic as it may seem, perception of favour is a complex gathering of several processes.

When we eat the molecules of food move throughout the back of the throat and reach nerves in our nose, which then send smell messages to the part of the brain called temporal lobe. This section is also involved with memory, particularly memories of place. So basically, flavour  is processed in the same part of the brain as memories and this is why flavours can evoke such powerful memories of certain lifetime episodes. A bite that flushes your head and pushes you in another time and place, leaves you amazed at how vividly you can feel memories in a bite. You don’t smell something and remember a phone number, how much fahrenheit is one degree celsius or something useful like that. You always remember something like a aunt’s living room or the first day of school. It happened to all of us, but it seems Proust got the most excited about it and wrote 3000 pages about his madeleines experience. As the flavour is dependent on many different factors, these experiences are very rare and glimpsing. But the neurological connections are so strong there are known cases of people recovering from amnesia with this phenomenon.

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Basically most of the flavour perception derives from smell. In general the sense of smell is fairly under researched. Despite our belief that sight and hearing are the two most important senses to our survival, from an evolutionary perspective smell is the most important sense. To recognize food or to detect poison, smell is the sense that almost all mammals use. Because of this basic feature yet vital role, smell is one of the oldest parts of our brain. The memorising begins in our prenatal period, as our flavour  preferences start to form according to our mother’s cravings. Memories of earlier experiences are a major factor in our decisions as to what we eat and what we don’t eat. The way were fed as children has a huge impact on our way of eating habits, and even though my mother can’t stand a smell of curry let along take a bite, me on the contrary have basically lived of curry for weeks. What matters is that I was introduced to a wide array of possible flavours very early and learn to trust and have fun with tasting.

 The way we accept novelties is of course connected to our previous experiences with trying out new bites, but there is also physiological predisposition on how we approach unknown substances. This is where the survival element of the flavour kicks in – we approach the food with caution, smell it, take a good look at it and take a slow concentrated bite, deciding whether to swallow or spit out. The verdict “It tastes like chicken” leads to a happy ending exotic dinner. The sense of liking and dislike is connected to previous patterns – the more familiar it is, more likely it is to be safe and accepted. And this includes the globally most familiar corporal flavours, who spend enormous amounts of time and money for development of flavour formulas. Flavour branding is very profitable and there is nothing left to randomness to make sure the customers get what they want/expect/crave, at predisposition of lowest production costs. The branded packaging triggers the same taste memory with one look and taking a bite never fails, the taste is always the same as it should be. I recently had my madeleine flashback with Bazooka chewing gum taking me back to 1980s in a scorching hot and noisy Fiat 126. The gum was the same in present time – at beginning teeth breaking hard and super sweet for 30 seconds and 2 minutes later tasteless rubber, yet the childhood taste to last forever.

Let’s return back to meeting unknown tastes. If you do get to bite a bitter pill at first encounter, the chances of giving the pungent delicacy another chance are fairly low. A very efficient way to prevent coyotes from feasting on sheep, have been done by serving them sheeps marinated in lithium chloride – a dressing with guaranteed severe sickness. After “mouton en marinadée” the coyotes decided to stay away from the sheep bistro and happily settle with what regular daily menu has to offer. Again referring to popular commercial foods, when you find yourself at the other side of the planet after a several session of sightseeing the lavatories, there is only one thing you feel is safe enough to save you. Even though at home McDonald’s is ultimate example of unhealthy junk food, when confronted in unfamiliar situation, burgers smell with assuring smell of satisfaction with no unpleasant surprises. It’s our brains effort to protect us, and the corporations have it all sorted out and take advantage of it strategically.

As assuring and safe the familiar things might be, our instincts are in constant search for new tastes, as various means wider spectrum of nutrition. Not every first bite ends with final “yuck”. Nobody never liked it’s first olive, check Youtube you’ll find a bunch of videos of kid’s faces grinning in disgust over an olive. It is the same with whiskey or gorgonzola cheese, and yet these are known as one of the ultimate delicacies. These foods are unlikely to be enjoyed by someone who hasn’t had substantial exposure to it. It is usually the social setting that give us the necessary repeated exposure to adapt to certain flavours. The process of acquiring a taste can involve developmental maturation, genetics, family example, and biochemical reward properties of foods. For example the recently discovered fifth taste called umami is known as the taste of glutamate, an amino acid found throughout the human body and in protein-containing foods. To imagine savory taste, think of chicken broth or Parmesan cheese. Studies have revealed that this separate taste receptor has perhaps evolved to ensure adequate consumption of protein.

By the way, ‪Monosodium glutamate aka.‬ E621 is one of the most widespread food additives in instant soups and prepared meals. MSG can enhance other taste-active compounds, improving the overall taste of certain foods. To sum up it is added to food products to increase the liking, literally getting you hooked up on specific flavour you can only reach with a certain bag or box. Since we are already discussing wiring the brain with taste – glutamates are important neurotransmitters in the human brain, which are playing a key element in learning and memory. There is an ongoing study by neurologists about possible damaging side-effects of MSG. How come nobody prevents this additives from being put on shelves?

Few years ago there was a meeting of crucial men leading 11 largest food companies. The doctors started to warn about the obesity problems and health issues and appealed to the food companies, to change the formulas. The owner of the biggest company relaying on sugary product success, declared, that he is not going to change the formulas which are bringing the company huge success. As appalled as some were by the ignorant and profit centered statement, he was right. It is not up to companies to change in order to have a change in the society – they offer what we demand and confirm our demands by purchase.

 In modern wilderness our tastes sensors do not necessarily warn us from what is bad for us. As we are bombarded with information about the good and bad food, it seems that choosing foods and making food preferences is more and more a rational cognitive act based on scientific facts and packaging declarations. The mind is a moldable tissue which is able to rewire itself throughout time in according to the way we focus our attention. Just as we spread our ability to think by taking on new knowledges experiences our ability to recognize quality develops with conscious research. The food preferences influence thinking and consequently personality, memories and finally life. It is our decision whether we are letting ourselves be guided inside the familiarity of the known comfort zones or push through, experience and in time, train the mind to seek and really differ good from bad.

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8 thoughts on “Taste to remember

  1. WilsnChee says:

    Haha whenever I eat a bitter melon, it takes me back to my childhood when my parents forced it on me with a Rattan cane, being in an Asian household. The bitter memories seems so sweet now that I moved out and on my own.

    Also I need to look up this ‘Umami’ you speak of. A good read, thanks!

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