Flavors and Ingredients - Tastes: Bitter, Salty, Sour, Sweet, Umami, Others (part 4)

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Virginia Utermohlen on Taste Sensitivity

Virginia Utermohlen is an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, where she studies individual differences in taste and smell sensitivity and how those differences relate to our personality and ability to perform.

Do different people taste things differently?

Yes, there are genetic variations all over the place. We have differences in the taste buds and the trigeminal nerve, plus people differ in their saliva, which influences taste. What I taste and what you taste in the same food is going to be different.

One difference is sensitivity to 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). People are genetically capable or incapable of tasting it. Certain populations such as the Sub-Saharan Africans tend to be very sensitive to it, and then there are populations in Europe where insensitivity is very common. The British are famous for simple flavor systems and they tend to be fairly insensitive tasters, whereas if you look at the flavors in Asian, Sub-Saharan African, and indigenous American cuisines, those people are highly sensitive tasters and their foods have complex flavor profiles.

The trigeminal nerve senses hot and cold, pain, texture, and to some extent sweet, independently of the taste bud cells. Compounds like menthol bind to the same receptor that changes shape in response to cold temperatures, so the brain interprets what menthol is doing as cooling, even though it’s not colder than anything else around. Similarly with capsaicin: it binds with the receptor that changes confirmation with warm or hot temperatures so the brain says, “This is hot!” It really isn’t hot, but the brain interprets it as that. There are differences [in trigeminal sensitivity] from one individual to the next. Some people will put an Altoid on their tongue for the first time and think, “This isn’t bad!” Another person puts one on their tongue and thinks it’s got to get out of there as soon as it can. Once those trigeminal nerves get overactivated, it’s painful. Another thing that the trigeminal nerve senses is pungency. French cheeses are very pungent.

Is there something about the French that causes them to like pungency in cheese?

In my rather small sample, the people of French descent tend to be more sensitive to the cooling sensation from mint. So on the average my guess is that they would be more trigeminally sensitive.

If the French tend to be more trigeminally sensitive, it seems like they would be more sensitive to the pungency in cheeses and thus not like them very much.

This is something important and interesting: if you are sensitive to something, it can be either adverse or pleasant. Now pungency, in my opinion, is not aversive. Some people think it is. I personally like chocolate that’s quite bitter. Just because something has a quality doesn’t mean it’s aversive or pleasant. That varies from person to person.

Something you said makes me wonder about beer and wine, and low trigeminal sensitivity versus high trigeminal sensitivity.

The carbonation and pungency of beer give it a trigeminal kick. If you are sensitive to the pungent, the trigeminal side of things, but not sensitive to the bitterness of beer, you’re going to like beer a lot better than I do. I can’t stand it!

So could one take a PROP test strip and a menthol candy and between those two things figure out which a person likes more, beer or wine?

That’s possible. I’ve never done that experiment before.

Dr. Utermohlen had previously explained to me that individuals who define “reasonable” as “logical” are generally less trigeminally sensitive and those who define it as “justifiable, fair” tend to be more trigeminally sensitive. Note that trigeminal sensitivity is a separate phenomenon from PROP sensitivity.

We talked about how people define the word “reasonable” in a previous conversation. Why would somebody who is more trigeminally sensitive define reasonable as fair?

Well, here is my hypothesis—not that I necessarily have any proof of this—but taste and smell go to the orbitofrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is critical in evaluating whatever you experience. That’s its job: to evaluate whether something is good or not.

When you reason something through, it’s another way of getting at whether something is good or not. Logical reasoning makes use primarily of another part of the brain called the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain gets no input whatsoever from taste and smell.

Which way you decide to think something through will depend on which way you decide how something has value. It depends on whether you go to the that-smells-fishy-to-me sort of evaluation versus a logical evaluation.

Does this mean that when people talk about making decisions from their gut versus logical decisions, they’re making decisions with their orbito-frontal cortex versus their dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex?

Yeah. I think so. I really do.

What about geeks?

In my experience, geeks are very mixed in their sensitivities. In our data, the more mathematically oriented computer scientists tend to be on average nontasters. The computer scientists who are more interested in the purpose of a program tend to be more sensitive tasters. One group of geeks will be creative in ways that are highly logical and scientific. That other crowd, however, will be interested in emotion and expression and look at programming in a holistic way. That crowd will “get it” when you ask them if sunsets or the crackle and flame of a wood fire spark their imagination.

Wait, what’s this?

Some of the questions that we ask have to do with a phenomenon called absorption, the capacity to become completely immersed in a sensory experience. On the average, from the data we have, people who are moved by a sunset, or for whom the crackle and flames of a wood fire spark the imagination or may produce visual images are highly trigeminally sensitive.

I believe that people who have a high capacity for absorption should imagine what a dish would be like, and then work toward it by maybe adding a pinch of this or that, tasting as they go. They should really spend time experimenting at what the differences in tastes are like, and not be religiously bound to a recipe.

And the other type?

The other type might stick to a recipe, because they are probably going to have better success if they follow A, follow B, follow C, follow D, and the thing will come out. It requires less guesswork, and so is less dependent on a person’s sensitivity.

Trigeminal Sensitivity Experiment

Researchers, of course, go about their work in a controlled, reproducible way. Scientists in Germany looked at one way of measuring differences in trigeminal sensitivity by using strips of filter paper coated with various levels of capsaicin and asking subjects if they could perceive any sensation (such as burning, prickling, stinging) when tasting.

For the “home scientist” (or the just plain curious), there’s an easier experiment you can do to get a rough sense of how sensitive you are to trigeminal stimulation. Menthol, the compound in mint that gives it its cooling sensation, is the primary flavor in candies such as Altoids and Peppermint Lifesavers. First, get a fresh peppermint candy. No, the one you recently discovered between the couch cushions from who-knows-when won’t work: menthol is a volatile compound and evaporates away from the mint over time.

Pop the fresh mint in your mouth, clamp down, and breathe through your nose for half a minute or so, giving your saliva a chance to soften up and break down the candy, then chomp down on it without opening your mouth. If the cooling sensation you have is a really strong, whooo that’s strong, then you’re likely to be very trigeminally sensitive. If you hardly notice anything, then you are likely to be mildly sensitive. Most people, however, find that the cooling effect lies between these two extremes. Then, just for fun, breathe through your mouth. You should notice the cooling effect become even stronger.

“Flavor Tripping” with Miracle Berries

Try tasting chocolate, blackberries, apples, strawberries, lemons, and blue cheeses while “under the influence” of miraculin.

Our taste buds are chemical detectors full of receptor cells waiting for a chemical to come along that “fits” to trigger them. You can think of it a bit like a lock waiting for the right key to fit before it opens. But what if there were a way to pick that lock?

Miraculin and curculin are two proteins that do exactly that. They bind to sweet receptors and trigger them when acidic compounds wander along, thus causing foods that would normally taste sour (due to the acids) to taste sweet.

The miracle fruit plant produces a small red berry, aptly named the “miracle berry,” which contains a large concentration of miraculin. Chewing the berry flesh for a few minutes is enough to “dose” yourself with enough miraculin that chomping down on a lemon will give the taste of lemonade.

You can order the berries online, but they are perishable. Dried tablets derived from the berry are also available. Once you have the berries or tablets in hand, invite a bunch of your friends over, munch on them, and serve up some sour foods. Grapefruit works amazingly well; try slices of lime and lemon as well.

The “flavor tripping” isn’t limited to sour foods. I’ve had one friend swear that the roast beef sandwich he was eating was made with a honey-glazed variety and other friends try Worcestershire sauce and compare it to sashimi. Try foods such as salsas, tomatoes, apple cider vinegar, radishes, parsley, stout beers, Tabasco, and cheeses. Keep in mind that miraculin makes sour foods taste sweet but doesn’t actually alter their pH, so don’t pig out on lemons, lest you give yourself a bad case of heartburn.

Other compounds, such as lactisole, do the opposite of miraculin and suppress the sensation of sweetness, but without affecting our perception of saltiness, sourness, or bitterness. The food industry uses these types of compounds to alter the taste of things like jams to reduce the taste of sugar and bring out the fruit. Lactisole is used at around a 0.1% to 1% concentration by weight; search for Domino Sugar’s “Super Envision” (it’s listed on food labels as part of the general category “artificial flavors”). 

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