Cookery and Culinary Arts/Accounting for taste
I was wondering if science has yet created an accounting for taste in the lab? Knowing how certain ingredients stimulate taste buds, etc? I'd be curious to know if there is a way to take unhealthy processed foods and create the same flavors using nothing but natural and healthy ingredients. Know of any studies like this?
Wow, that's a really loaded question. Here's a shotgun answer, let me know if you need clarification.
Food science has indeed advanced significantly in the last 15-20 years, and it is definitely a growing field. Science has indeed create alternatives that are healthy and natural, the problem really is that people keep changing what healthy and natural means. Aspartame, for instance, in diet soda - a great concept until people got suspicious of it. Now it's Stevia and Agave syrup, which I personally think are great...
I know what you mean though. A corndog is never going to be as healthy as an apple, but as far as I've heard, nobody has done any research on corndog flavored apples. These guys might know someone who has, they take food science pretty seriously:
The science behind how flavor works is understood pretty well, but keep in mind that we're not really dealing with quantitative information. One person may think a food has the perfect level of sweetness or sourness, while another would find it off putting. Many factors affect a person's perception including the types of food and the amount of variety someone is exposed to, the person's genetics and specific topography of the tastebuds (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supertasters
), cultural influences, and simply presentation or perceived value of a specific food.
Here are a few topics to consider.
Falvor v. Taste:
Taste is the sensation that comes from the tongue, and is extremely limited. It can actually only detect five sensations (or seven or eight depending on who you ask), they are:
Savory, Also called Umami (http://www.umamiinfo.com/
*Cooling (Such as mint)
*Warming (Such as hot peppers)
*Astringent (Drying, like strong tea)
The nose on the other hand can detect thousands of different chemical signatures and registers them as different aromas. These, combined with taste and texture give the overall sensation of Flavor.
It looks like an artificial tongue has already hit the market, and I expect a nose won't be far behind.
How certain ingredients stimulate Tastebuds:
This refers to the mechanism of taste. Taste buds are basically pore-like clusters of cells that can only fit specifically shaped molecules. When a molecule of that shape (or very similar) comes in contact with the taste bud, it triggers an electrochemical response, ultimately, to your brain.
Salt has some very unique reactions with the human body and pallet. My fellow food nerd Alton Brown has a few things to say about it on his show Good Eats, which is wonderfully available online at:
He has a rant around the 8 minute mark that's somewhat pertinent.
Just like most things, taste has been selectively bred for (We eat to live, QED). We like sweet because sweet usually indicates carbohydrates, the primary food of the brain and body. Sour often indicates essential vitamins, though very strong acid can also indicant somethings not so good, such as under ripe berries. We've learned to avoid bitter poisonous alkaloids, though many people condition themselves to tolerate them or even like them (Spinach, arugula, broccoli). Savory flavors indicate amino acids important for building the body and brain. Salt is essential for your body's proper functioning.
It's likely that our sense of smell took a similar path, and genetic variation no doubt plays some role, but the jury is still out on exactly how much.
You know... now that I think about it, considering the leaps and bounds we've gained in genetic science since cracking the human genome, a corn dog flavored apple really isn't that far out of a concept. Let me know if you come across one.
And if you want to see something really wacky, do a search for miracle berries.