Exceptionally Tasty

A Taste for Health at Nutrition 2018

Leah Whigham, Nutrition 2018People won’t eat what they don’t like. So if we want them to eat healthy food, it must taste good. Of course, nothing is simple about making the healthiest food taste good to most people people. We are driven by evolution to eat sugar, salt, and fat – as well as protein. Our inherited tastes tell us to not eat things that might make us sick. Hence, we have a natural aversion to many bitter flavors.

So how do we get people to eat less sugar, salt, and fat and more vegetables, since these are some of the more bitter foods in our diet?

At Nutrition 2018, ILSI North America sponsored a deep dive into this subject. The session was titled The Future of Taste and Health: Converging Areas of Science to Promote Healthy Dietary Patterns.

Understanding the Physiology of Flavor and Taste

Fortunately, many scientists are trying to better understand flavor and taste mechanisms in the body. They are studying how different food ingredients interact with each other to affect flavor.  Sensory perceptions influence our food choices in some surprising ways. So they are developing new strategies to change our perceptions of health foods. This is no small feat. For example, lowering salt in a food not only changes the salty flavor, but can increase bitterness and decrease sweetness, while also changing the thickness and texture of a food (not to mention its preservation and leavening properties).

Sugar also has the ability to counter bitter flavors, as well as sour, and contributes texture and viscosity to foods. However, few parents, as shown in one study presented by John Hayes , like the idea of adding a small amount of sugar to vegetables to get their children to eat them. The food industry has worked around this by adding fruit (a source of sweetness) to vegetable products for infants and toddlers.

The Importance of Context

Also, certain techniques can give people a taste for health food more without changing the food at all. Simply exposing someone to a food multiple times will increase liking. The presentation of the food matters as well – in a study presented by Debra Zellner, simply plating the food more attractively increased the liking of the food flavor. Another strategy is to pair healthy foods with foods a person already likes, but avoid presenting very hedonically positive foods prior to less tasty healthy foods.

Common sense tells us people will not eat what they do not like. Thus, using science to help us better understand how to enhance the flavor and perceptions of healthy foods is important. After all, food is much more to humans than a source of nutrients. Food is source of pleasure and it helps to define our culture.

For more on this session, click here. For perspective on how flavors and taste influences what kids eat, click here.

This guest post is the second in a series from Nutrition 2018 by our good friend Leah Whigham. She is Executive Director of the Paso del Norte Institute for Healthy Living. In addition, She is a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Exceptionally Tasty, photograph © Paul Ritchie / flickr

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June 10, 2018