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Taste Matters by John Prescott: Many Notes and a Book Review

With its friendly title, subtitle of "Why we Like the Foods We Do," and cover image of a strawberry dripping with cream, it seems that Taste Matters by John Prescott is a light, explanatory science book written for the non-scientist. Not so much.

It is more like a scientific literature review on the physiology of taste and taste preferences, innate and learned; and the bonuses and problems that come with it. It covers how humans have developed physically, emotionally, and culturally to like and dislike certain foods; how sometimes this doesn't work in our favor (now that we don't eat for pure survival) and why; and what we might do about that in terms of food development.

All of these are interesting subjects to be sure, but at the end of the day the book isn't a fun read so much as a small textbook. Which isn't to say I didn't learn a lot from it. 

Taste matters cover

Naturally I was looking through the book with an eye toward drinks. Here are some things I underlined, and some observations I drew from them. 

  • The basic tastes of sweet, salt, bitter, sour, umami do not combine to form new tastes, unlike smells. So something sweet and sour is sweet and sour; it's never swour. However the presence of one taste can affect the perception of another, as in the case of sour and sweet together. 
  • While sour tastes are mostly produced by acids (citric, acetic (vinegar), etc.), and salt tastes are mostly produced by sodium, sweet and bitter tastes can be produced by substances belonging to a variety of chemical classes. Thus when looking at sour cocktails, we can look at the spectrum of acids but we might have more options when talking about the sweet part of the balancing ingredients.
  • Though it is commonly thought that hot chillies overwhelms/diminishes other taste sensations; most likely it only distracts from them. 
  • Astringency is a textural sensation; mouthfeel. Astringent tannin-containing foods include some nuts, fruits (especially unripe ones), tea, cranberry juice, and of course wine. The sensations of drying and roughness result when the tannins act on the proteins in saliva to reduce saliva's ability to lubricate the mouth. 
  • Generally speaking the palatability of foods "seems to reflect either provision of energy or other vital nutrients, or, conversely, a warning of the presence of a potential toxin." 
  • Sweetness signals the presence of carbohydrates, which include sugars. Thus sweetness signals the presence of energy. Fat is even more energy dense than sugars and is partially signalled by texture- creaminess, crunchiness, smoothness, crispness all tell you something about a food's fat content. 
  • Drugs that block opiod drug enjoyment also reduce the palatability of sweet foods. Does this mean that I can take methadone as an appetite suppressant?
  • Sodium is necessary for maintaining the body's fluid balance. Salt increases the palatability of other foods even if they aren't overtly salty. Bartenders are increasingly adding a tiny pinch of salt to their syrups and drinks with citrus. 
  • Umami (glutamate) isn't necessary to the body on its own, but we may like it because it may signal the presence of proteins. 
  • Bitterness never becomes liked in particular; only in the context of particular foods (unlike sweetness, for example).
  • Sourness on its own is unpleasant, but when balanced by sweetness it is palatable. Fruit that can be very tannic when unripe can grow to have a good sweet/sour balance; but then when overripe becomes overly acidic, indicating we should not eat it. 
  • Humans have inherent neophobia - fear of new stuff. On the converse, we tend to like stuff we've had a lot. We also learn to like stuff that our friends like. This explains the whole bartender Fernet thing. 
  • Comfort foods are really links to happy times or childhood memories and even may combat loneliness as they remind us (subconsciously or not) of happy times with family and friends. I think I'm going to start making more Sunny Delite and Nestle Quick cocktails.
  • Taste aversion is when we avoid something that has caused us an ill effect in the past- often a gastrointestinal problem like nausea. It is often learned with one bad experience and can spread to similar flavors. (Mango ice cream that made you sick can make you lose your liking for mango everything, even if the cream was the problem.)  In other words, people who never try tequila again after that high school Cuervo Gold experience have a strong bio-psychological reasons for their reluctance.
  • Psychological factors are also indicators on when enough is enough for food. If your table is covered in food wrappers, it's a good sign you're done eating. So maybe if you want to drink less, leave all your empties cluttering the table. 
  • Monotonous diets have been shown to help dieters lose weight - you get bored of the food so you eat less.  So to drink less, maybe stick to Vodka Soda. 
  • Slimy foods signify decay. So why do people like Jell-O shots? 
  • Supertasters are more sensitive to all taste qualities, but they may favor extra salt in foods/drinks because salt can reduce the perception of bitterness. 
  • Our perception of peppermint is only partly an odor, it's also part sensation from the cooling menthol on the tongue. 
  • Our ability to recognize common odors stays mostly intact until age 70, after which it declines steeply. 
  • Women are better than men at identifying odors. 
  • Combining new and weird flavors with familiar ones reduces anxiety about them and makes them more acceptable. Thus when a customer is averse to gin, say, maybe play up all the other flavors in the drink as a selling point. 
  • Saccharin is a sweetener with bitterness, while aspartame is astringent. The search for a sugar substitute without these side tastes is big business. 



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