The flavour of our food depends on LOTS of different factors: temperature (taste buds work best at warm temperatures); moistness (wet food releases flavour molecules more easily); saltiness (salt enhances sweet sensitivity and masks bitterness) and smell (we can sense over 1 trillion different aromas – the specific combination of smells is one of the major factors affecting the flavour of a food). There are many more factors at play – including the mood we are in when we eat and what memories a type of food may evoke.
Now, when you say ‘healthy’ food, I presume you mean food that is low in fat, refined sugars and salt, while being high in other essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. (Vegetables, fruit and pulses nearly always fit this description.) Now, to get a low fat, low sugar food (such as a vegetable dish) to taste ‘as good’ as a high fat, high sugar food, we face something of a problem: the human palate is specifically designed to prefer higher calorie foods. It is an inbuilt biological drive for foods with lots of energy that has been passed down through evolution from our ancestors – finding high calorie foods has enabled the our species to survive periods of famine by easily building up fat stores in times of plenty.
Making healthy food taste unhealthy
Food manufacturers try a variety of tricks for trying to make ‘healthy’ foods taste better – although these usually involve adding sugar, salt, fats, sweeteners and/or flavourings. Many of these attempts can undermine the food’s originally good nutritional profile; for example, certain fast food chains are infamous for serving salads with dressings that contain more calories than a burger and fries.
We can tweak with lots of different things in a food – texture, temperature, smell – but we will never truly trick our taste buds. For example, there is no artificial sweetener that tastes the same as sugar, and there isn’t much that can replace the flavour of fat. We now know that there are fat-sensitive taste receptors on the tongue, meaning that we will always be able to tell if the fat has been taken out of a dish we know and love.
That said, there are plenty of things that can be done to make food taste better. Adding herbs and spices is a good place to start and there is no shortage of recipe suggestions online. It’s also worth remembering that not all fats are ‘bad’ and fats are an essential part of a balanced diet. It is perfectly possible to make a food healthier by simply changing the fat or oil used in its preparation – the saturated fat in butter can be swapped for the unsaturated fat from olive oil, for example.
Ultimately though, what ‘tastes good’ is very much a matter of… well… personal taste. And there’s maybe not much you can do about that: we are starting to find out why some people have a ‘sweet tooth’, while others can’t resist a pie. (Lots of us like both.) It increasingly seems that our genes dictate our tongue’s sensitivity to fats and sugars.
So while you may not be able to stop loving fatty or sweet foods, a liking for healthier foods can be nurtured. Perhaps I’m one of the lucky ones and I loves salads and veg. If you don’t then, yes, you have permission to hate me.
Answer by Dr Stu
Question sent via Facebook
Image: Nikki, on Flickr