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.
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
The seasons were originally set by the weather patterns. In parts of the world at mid-latitude (i.e. not near the equator or the poles), summer, spring, autumn and winter are fairly obvious. (Summer = hottest quarter. Winter = coldest quarter. Spring = when things start to grow. Autumn = when plants start to die.) As time has passed, it has become important to set a standard for when these periods begin and end; it is no longer reasonable to say that spring begins when the first tulip comes into flower. Although you can if you really like.
Today, one popular way for the choosing the seasons’ dates derives directly from the traditional weather patterns and is called the ‘modern meteorological reckoning’: in the Northern hemisphere spring beings on 1st March, summer on 1st June, autumn on 1st September and winter on 1st June. The seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere.
The most widely accepted system of splitting the year into four is by the ‘astronomical reckoning system’. This is based on the solstices (the longest and shortest days of the year) and the equinoxes (the two days of the year with equal daylight and night). The exact dates for these vary each year although they are usually around March 21 for the spring equinox, June 21 for summer solstice, September 21 for autumn equinox and December 21 for winter equinox. The astronomical reckoning is neat and tidy because it is based on something physical (the Earth’s given position in its orbit around the sun). Personally, I think these dates are a bit depressing: I’d rather not think of summer as starting at the longest day of the year because from then on the days are getting shorter!
As for ‘British Summer Time’ – this is just a name chosen to indicate when the clocks ‘go forward’ by one hour as part of the UK’s daylight saving time practice – it doesn’t indicate when the summer beins. It varies between countries (in 2014 it was March 9th in USA but March 30th in most of the rest of the world) and is given various names: In the Australia it is called ‘Eastern Summer Time’, but on the west coast of USA it is called ‘Pacific Daylight Time’.
Answer by Dr Stu
Question from Natahsa B via Facebook
Links: Find out more about the astronomical calendar reckoning at Almanac.com, along with an explanation of why the summer is hot and the winter cold.
Image: Carol Lin, on Flickr
I think we’ve all been there: you get through the day with a mild throbbing and bit of an ache here and there, but the night really ends up hurting you fillings.
Well, incidentally, there is more than one answer:
Although the most common causes of toothache are cavities and gum disease, there’s a chance it could be flagging something more serious. So, if the pain persists, you know the drill…go see a dentist! Hopefully they can put a smile back on your face.
Answer by Isabel Hutchison
Question from Tim via Facebook
Image: Alison Lait, on Flickr