In Good Taste

October 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm Leave a comment

Nadia Byrnes, graduate student in nutrition and food science. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

During grad school, I had a gig as a restaurant reviewer for a local paper. While I loved every second of it (hello, free food), I sometimes felt a bit like a fraud. Why should my personal taste be the standard bearer? I happen to like slightly overcooked pasta, and I think anything hotter than mild salsa should come with a warning label. So who am I to judge?

Our food preferences, and the science behind them, was the subject of a Research Unplugged talk I attended Thursday afternoon. The series of discussions is sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Office of University Relations and Schlow Centre Region Library. Yesterday’s presentation featured the research of Nadia Byrnes, a Penn State graduate student in nutrition and food science. Her faculty advisor, food science professor John Hayes, joined her.

In the hour-long talk, I learned a lot that would have helped me back in my food-writing days. Some highlights:

—It’s a myth that parts of your tongue detect different tastes. Recent research shows that you can sense all tastes on your entire tongue.

—MSG, or monosodium glutamate, isn’t bad for you at all. It’s a naturally occurring amino acid that adds an earthy, savory flavor to foods. There’s no medical evidence that people can be hypersensitive to MSG, or that it causes headaches.

—Ever heard that taste is 80 percent smell? Smell does play a huge role in how we taste food, but most people don’t realize that touch is an important third component. The thermal sensations we get from things like mint or black pepper, or the distinct burn from alcohol, affect the way we perceive a food’s taste.

—A person’s sense of taste is hugely affected by his or her—ready for this one?— saliva flow. “High-flow” individuals tend to favor drier wines, for example, because the extra saliva’s lubrication offers more protection from that astringent mouthfeel.

One of the coolest revelations was the result of Nadia’s research on personality and food preferences. As part of her study, Nadia quizzed test subjects about their habits and personalities, then asked the participants to rate their enjoyment of increasingly spicy dishes. People who are more “sensation seeking”— they enjoy things like loud music and performing in front of crowds—favor spicy food far more than their calmer, more introverted counterparts. Novelty seekers, people who like to try new things, are especially fond of the hot stuff.

One of the personality quiz questions, explained Professor Hayes, turned out to be an incredibly accurate predictor of a person’s taste for spice: Subjects who said they “loved to drive fast on twisty roads” got the most enjoyment from fiery foods. Go figure.

Research Unplugged continues every Thursday until Nov. 15 at the Schlow Centre Region Library and is open to the public. Check out the schedule of upcoming talks here.

Mary Murphy, associate editor

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