By Alyssa Danigelis
Taste is wired into us earlier than you might think. Scientists found that women who drank carrot juice daily while pregnant later had babies who ate more carrot-flavored cereal than the ones whose moms didn’t. But what happens from there?
Researchers around the world have been hot on the trail. They’re tracing geographic flavor pairings, mapping sensitivity to bitterness, and even attempting to bridge the great cilantro divide. Someone had to, even if Julia Child’s ghost haunts them forever.
One persistent flavor mystery is the Nordic obsession with licorice called salmiak or salmiakki. The distinctive candy is treated with ammonium chloride, which gives it a salty kick. Finding pleasure in those candies doesn’t come naturally to outsiders. BBC reporter Mark Bosworth found this out while trying them for the first time: The salmiakki was so painful he spit it out.
The candy’s origins might be medical since ammonium chloride can break down mucus – an advantage in cough syrup, Bosworth pointed out. Centuries ago, apothecaries sold licorice to combat various ailments. Recent studies on natural licorice showed the root has drug-like qualities. NYU’s Langone Medical Center licorice treatments for eczema and ulcers.
Where science leaves off, culture takes over. “Swedes and licorice have similar personalities: It takes time to become friends and break down a Swede’s barrier,” Marin Johansson, co-founder of Cupcake STHLM told the blog LostInStockholm.com. “In the same way, it takes time to learn and love the taste of licorice.”
The Great Cilantro Divide
Cilantro might be more divisive, except the preference could be influenced by genetics, history and the way our brains work. Multiple cultures embrace the plant. In certain Latin American and Asian dishes, the herb plays a leading role.
Haters call cilantro’s taste soapy, and that’s the nicest thing they’ll say about it. Several studies over the past few years have indicated a possible link between genetics and taste, including responses to cilantro. Kitchen science writer Harold McGee explored cilantro in depth for the New York Times. He followed the dislike back to 1600s Europe, when the flavor fell out of fashion. McGee touched on genetics but also looked at the chemical and neurological responses. Neuroscientist Jay Gottfried told him taste and smell evolve in a way to increase survival. Cilantro haters’ brains read it as danger.
Sounds reasonable enough, but last year University of Pennsylvania biologists turned the bitterness equals poison notion on its head. Sarah Tishkoff and her colleagues went to Africa and measured the ability of people in 74 nomadic herder ethnic groups to taste two bitter compounds, NPR reported. You’d think if anyone would have heightened bitterness sensing, it would be these folks. Surprisingly, bitterness detection varied in Africa by geography rather than what the people ate or how they got it.
“These genes could be detecting a compound we don’t know anything about,” Tishkoff told NPR.
Mapping the Flavor Network
At first glance, the flavor network mapped out by computer scientists and biologists in 2011 resembles neurons. Studying thousands of North American, Western European, Southern European, Latin American, and East Asian recipes, the scientists made several discoveries.
They found that recipes in North America and Western Europe use ingredients that share flavor compounds – or chemicals – while East Asian and Southern European recipes bring together ingredients that don’t share chemicals. Soy sauce, scallions, ginger, soybeans, rice, and sesame oil were the most authentic ingredients paired up in East Asian recipes. Milk, butter, eggs, wheat, cream, thyme, and vanilla appeared most often in Western European recipes.
Those lip-smacking maps confirm a University of Nottingham study that concluded the United Kingdom’s regions have “flavor dialects.” The most popular regional foods included cheddar cheese and Devonshire cream teas – a light afternoon meal with tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam. Oh yeah.
An inclination for sweets could demonstrate that you literally have a sweeter personality. Studies led by American psychologists in 2011 found that participants believed that a person who likes sweet foods like candy or chocolate cake was more agreeable and helpful than those who like other foods. Grandmothers everywhere probably just smiled.
So yes, taste is wired into us earlier than we think – and carrot isn’t the only taste preference that forms before birth. The carrot juice study out of the Monell Chemical Senses Center also showed that flavors like vanilla, garlic, anise and mint could be transmitted through amniotic fluid. Fortunately they don’t get set for life because new tastes can be learned, no matter where you’re from.
Alyssa Danigelis is a professional journalist covering technology, science and design who also loves experimenting with new flavors. Follow her on Twitter @adanigelis.