Health Hub

by Robin Gaudette

Taste is the strongest predictor of the food we choose to eat.

There are many things that influence taste and our psychological reaction to food we eat. We are born with a preference for sweet and salty flavors. On average, we consume 73 grams of added sugar daily, more than the recommended 10 percent of total calories. And the average daily sodium intake is 3,400 milligrams, well over the Center of Disease Control-recommended 2,300 milligrams.

Through evolution, our distaste for the bitter flavor stems from an association of bitter and toxic.

The ability to taste requires input from the tongue, nose, eyes, teeth, palate and fingers. Yes, the fingers and teeth because the tactile experience of eating also influences flavor and enjoyment of food. The tongue, mouth and nose send messages to a center in the brain that responds to taste.

The taste buds, small bundles of specialized nerves, are on the tongue to react to each of the kinds of flavors — sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory (umami). Picture yourself eating a lemon, even the thought of what it tastes and feels like makes the taste buds on the sides of your tongue pucker.

Sweet taste is localized to the front two-thirds of the tongue and salty tastes are experienced on the sides of the front half of the tongue. The bitter taste is not experienced until the flavor hits the very back of the tongue, which may explain for most of us why we don’t initially taste it.

Savory flavors are experienced over the entire top of the tongue, except for the area of bitter taste buds.

The texture of food also influences flavor. Texture is sensed on the front two-thirds of the tongue by different taste buds that have no sense of taste, only texture.

Smell is the function of the rear of the nasal cavity, where 350 to 400 types of receptors regulate the sensation of smell.

The temperature of the food you eat will also affect its flavor.

Sugar tastes sweeter at higher temperatures and salt tastes salter at low temperatures.

Not only are brightly colored vegetables good for you, they also are more appealing and will enhance flavor. Reds, oranges, purples and yellows may stimulate your appetite, where a green color will suggest a bitter flavor.

Taste is acquired through cultural influences, family rituals, the skill and style of the cook, and experiences good or bad, surrounding eating a food. Babies in utero are exposed to flavors via the amniotic fluid and through breast milk after birth. A toddler from another country may be able to eat more complex flavors such as curry without difficulty where the American toddler is unhappy with spices and textural differences.

Grow your acceptance of different, possibly healthier, foods by trying different cultural spice combinations. Indian influences use garlic, onion, curry powder and cinnamon.

Go Asian with garlic, scallions, sesame, ginger and soy sauce. Middle Eastern cultures enjoy garlic, onion, mint, cumin, saffron and lemon.

And travel south of the border with cumin, onion, oregano and cilantro. Practice savoring meals — eating slowly and reflecting on the flavors to increase the flavor experience. Make sure you are truly hungry before you eat and that you stop before stuffed.

Try foods more than once or twice, experiment 8 to 10 times before making judgment.

Pair an unfamiliar flavor with one you like such as bitter with salty (broccoli with cheese) eventually remove the preferred flavor to enjoy the disliked one.

While it all comes down to taste, there are many influences that can be adjusted to transform the enjoyment of eating.

— Robin Gaudette is the aquatics wellness coordinator at the Redmond Area Park and Recreation District. Contact her at robin.gaudette@raprd.org .

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