Fortunately, most of us are generally born with five senses – although some of us are sure they’ve got one or two more than that. While most of us see, hear and experience touch in similar ways, our individual senses of smell can vary and so, I’ve discovered, can our individual senses of taste.
The act of eating is essential for the survival of any animal and we humans have evolved a pretty sophisticated set of tools to enhance our desire to do so. Our sense of taste includes specific sensors designed to detect various flavour properties, thus encouraging us to nourish ourselves and, historically, aiding us in determining if a food is suitable to eat. The human is an omnivore – eating both plants and animals – and, as this comes with inherent risks, a system for recognising safe foods became an evolutionarily imperative. We are hard-wired to require sugars as carbohydrates provide instant energy, so it is important for us to be able to immediately identify this flavour profile, salt is necessary for cellular function so detection for that is built in, sour foods are often unripe and not at their digestible best, the more latterly recognised flavour of umami indicates the presence of necessary proteins and bitter foods are quite often the toxic things we need to avoid – hence our basic tasting kit.
I spent a large part of yesterday, along with a group of young chefs and waiters, getting to know my own tasting kit a little better in a fascinating sensory analysis workshop presented by Australian Grand Dairy Awards Deputy Chief Judge, cheese consultant and educator, Russell Smith and hosted by the Electrolux Appetite for Excellence. Russell set about explaining and demonstrating to us a lot more about what goes on in our mouths, how we differ in our experiences and what the impact for this is on food producers, chefs and consumers.
Anyone who has more than a perfunctory interest in food understands that sight and smell play a large part in how appetising we find our meals, but it was surprising to learn just how early our senses begin to develop our food preferences. At the age of 11 weeks a foetus has developed olfactory epithelium – the cells which detect odours – and begins registering the flavour molecules from the food the mother eats. By the time of birth the baby has already developed an acquired preference for these foods. As an infant experiences a growing range of foods, it’s flavour preferences develop and this process continues for all of us throughout life.
Interestingly though, we don’t all experience the same range of flavours or flavour intensity. Early on in our evolutionary history we were all once what is known as a “super-taster” – that is, we had such an abundance of flavour receptors and they were so finely tuned that we could detect very quickly and accurately safe and/or desirable foods – a handy skill for the survival of the race. As we learned to communicate the necessary safety information about food to each other this trait became redundant and evolved out of almost all of us. A very small percentage of the general population still retains their hyper-sensitivity to flavours, an unfortunate situation for them as even food with the most moderate flavour profiles is too intense for them to enjoy.
A highly tuned sensitivity to bitterness in particular was very useful and is one we retain to this this day – although interestingly not all of us. Approximately 25% of the Australian population have no sensitivity to bitterness at all and a startling 40% of the population in the UK are missing out on it, too. Lord only knows what will happen to them in the, admittedly unlikely, event that they get lost in the wilderness.
One of the most important flavours for chefs to be able to discern is saltiness, but the range for detecting this can be quite broad. In the tests in which we took part, most of us fell in the mid-range for salt detection, but if a chef were to fall in the percentage that have a very high or very low tolerance for salt it will have a significant impact upon the taste of the food which comes out of their kitchens. For this reason some chefs, but not many, conduct regular threshold tasting trials on their staff as another form of quality control.
Of course, our enjoyment of food is dependent upon a great many other factors too – the texture of a great piece of steak, the creamy mouthfeel of a rich, buttery dessert or even the rustle of a crisp packet all have a part to play in stimulating our appetite – but when it comes down to it, it’s really all a matter of taste isn’t it?
The Electrolux Appetite for Excellence is a remarkable program whose mission is to inspire, educate and nurture the emerging talent who are the future of the Australian food service industry, by providing opportunities and experiences that they would not otherwise have access to. I have been a confirmed admirer of this program since I first heard of it and have previously written about it here and here.