Flavor is an experience we create in our minds from all of our sensory perceptions of food. We “taste” our food in several different ways – aroma, temperature, texture, sight, memory, expectation, and of course, with our taste buds. There is a practical explanation for our complex and often emotional reaction to food. The intense positive or negative experiences eating a food ingrain the memory of what to eat and what not to eat, which helps us find or avoid that food in the future. We all know how getting sick right after eating can turn us off from a food for years.
And yet, your taste buds are not static receptors, they are dynamic cells linked to our brains and digestive systems in complex ways. The average adult has over 10,000 taste buds on their tongues and these cells are replaced every two weeks.
In some ways, you can retrain your taste buds and your brain to enjoy different kinds of foods. Researchers have shown the more times children are exposed to foods, the more likely they are to eat them. We can see this in cultural differences around tastes as well: fish soup for breakfast is a norm in some Asian communities which would not go over well with the average American. Additionally, repeated triggering of the food reward pathway in the brain and gut by calorie dense food (high sugar, fat, and refined carbohydrates) trains us to seek out and crave these hyper-palatable foods. You can use these physiologic facts to your advantage, learn to work with the realities of your biologic taste, flavor and rewards systems to help you enjoy your food more and make healthier choices.
How to Retrain Your Taste Buds
Pay attention! Typically we eat quickly with little focus, missing much of the experience. By bringing your full attention to what you are eating, you may just enjoy your food more, learn what foods you really like and ones you just eat to eat. This can lead to slowing down and eating less with increased satisfaction. Try these exercise to boost your perception of flavor which may radically change how you eat and relate to your food.
- Improve your palate. Bob Holmes (see his book linked below) recommends we train ourselves- much like professional wine tastes do- to enjoy our food more and become adept at recognizing the variety of flavors in our food. Verbalizing the experience of flavor can be difficult at first, we don’t have much practice with this or even words for it beyond “it tastes good” type of basics. Here’s how:
- Take a bite, slowly chew and move the food over your tongue. Try to isolate different flavors and come up with at least three words or phrases to describe your impression. What do you like? What would you change to make it better?
- Rate the sweetness, savoriness, sourness, and spiciness of the food on a scale of 1-10.
- Practice the basic tastes. Add a teaspoon of the following basic flavor to 1/2 cup of water, then sip and get the full experience (adapted from Huffington Post article).
-Sweet — table sugar or other sweetener.
-Sour — lemon juice or white vinegar.
-Bitter — Tonic water (quinine), citrus peel
-Salty — Various types of salt: table salt, kosher salt, sea salt.
-Umami — dashi, mushroom liquid (from soaked dried mushrooms), crystals of parmesan cheese.
- Enhance your experience when eating.
- chew thoroughly and slowly
- eat your food warm but not hot
- remove distractions
- clear your taste buds of sugar and salt for one week. This will reset them and then you will be able to taste them in smaller amounts so they don’t overpower other flavors.
- Focus on smell. While we have five or so taste perceptions, we have thousands of smell perceptions. The aromas in your food contribute much of our perception of taste and you can amplify them by adding a few sniffs.
Learn more about the history and science of taste and flavor: FLAVOR: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense. by Bob Holmes.
Happy eating and tasting!