sweet.sour.bitter.salty.umami.

Yesterday we had our final class on the Molecular Basis of Taste, exploring everything from what influences our food preferences to the chemesthetics of smell and taste. Professor Morini made a big impression with her stance on the importance of taste education. She stressed the value of exploring a variety of flavors, noting that you can alter your preferences and become accustomed to flavors, which is demonstrated by the environmental factors that affect our taste profiles.  Humans are the only animals that cook food and choose what to eat, and it is evident that in different areas of the world, humans are trained to enjoy certain flavors. Ultimately, I agree that to fight issues like diabetes and obesity, humans that are willing, can be trained to ‘like’ healthier foods and flavors, it might just take a little instruction!

We also discussed the basic physiology of the five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Humans are limited to these five basic tastes, with separate taste receptor cells for each one. My colleague Genn introduced me a few months ago to umami, which is a very relevant concept when working with almonds, as nuts are considered and umami food. Umami is essentially the savory/meaty/rich flavor that cannot be classified as sweet, salty, bitter or sour and it is responsible for the added dimension of protein-rich flavor in many dishes, like tofu. The idea of umami is fascinating to me, as the concept was recognized for centuries in Japanese culture, and finally coined by Dr. Ikeda in 1908, at which point the concept of MSG exploded all over the world. Despite what I originally thought, MSG is not proven to have any negative side effects or give headaches – so we might just have to blame those Chinese-food-headaches on crummy ingredients!

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