The Secrets Behind Delicious Food

Many factors go into how humans perceive taste, both objective and subjectively.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Joey Chen

As one of the basic necessities of life, food is a universal experience. For millennia, people have been searching for new cooking techniques. From the discovery of fire to the contribution of modern chemical engineering in our meals, our diets and taste palates have evolved along with society. All in all, food has grown to be much more than just sustenance. Yet a question remains: what makes food taste good?

When food enters the mouth, it is chewed and broken down by the enzymes in our saliva. On the surface of the tongue, thousands of microsized bumps, called papillae, come in contact with the food and are immediately stimulated. These bumps contain dozens of taste buds, receptors that can detect the temperature, texture, and flavors of food. Soon after, this information gets sent to the taste cortex in our brain through the nerves lining the tongue.

Our brain recognizes five core flavors: salt, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami. The umami taste is less well-known and is the savory taste behind foods like shellfish, pork, or beef. The different flavors signal certain characteristics of foods. While umami and sweet tastes suggest a higher density of nutrients, a salty taste helps identify concentrations of essential ions that the body needs. These qualities make these core flavors inherently pleasant. Conversely, high levels of bitterness suggest toxicity and act as a defense mechanism, triggering a gag reflex. Similarly, a sour taste has evolved to signal acids, such as those in spoiled food. In creating differentiation, these profiles allow humans to experience food and make eating immersive. It explains the importance of seasoning in supplementing these flavors, creating a balance in the stimulation of our taste buds.

The sense of taste is not the only thing that contributes to making food taste delicious. Ironically, all the other senses also play a role, direct or indirect. Arguably just as important in determining flavor is the olfactory system, or smell. Olfaction makes up a majority of the unique flavors that we experience as it faces fewer restrictions on the odor qualities it can pick up. Through a process called retronasal olfaction, the volatile chemicals released by foods inside the mouth are received by scent receptors at the back of the nose. A more acute smell allows for more distinction. As a result, the overall flavor of a certain type of food is a combination of both smell and taste. Sight and hearing both play significant roles when it comes to the perception of flavor, acting as cues for how something should taste. Good-looking food creates expectation and anticipation, leading to salivation priming the mouth. This has the effect of making the food taste better. On the other hand, audio aids in the perception of the texture. It identifies how crunchy or chewy the food is. Oddly enough, tactile sense, though less direct in taste, aids in how one might view a product. The haptic qualities of the material or packaging that a substance is in, such as coffee in foam versus paper cups or rice on china versus paper plates, all affect the consumer’s opinion of the food. Eating is a multi-sensory experience, so better stimulation of the senses leads to tastier food.

However, these factors only generate the variations that occur in food and how they are depicted by the five senses. Taste, in its truest nature, is subjective: there are both distinct and subtle preferences that are unique to people caused by our genetics and environments. In a recent study published by Psychological Science with a group of 100 pregnant women in their third trimester, researchers found that fetuses that were subjected to carrots were more likely to smile, while those who had kale grimaced. This suggests that the development of taste occurs as early as in the womb, as these infants are able to differentiate between sweet and bitter vegetables. The mother’s diet becomes the baby’s first experience with flavors, playing a large part in the foundation of the fetus’s food preferences. These preferences will continue to change throughout one’s life.

During childhood, preferences are simpler to explain, since they follow natural instincts. It is a combination of familiarity and simply what tastes good, which usually consists of sugary foods. Children are naturally drawn to sweet flavors because of their evolutionary purpose of signaling nutrient-dense foods. When one reaches their teenage and adult years, it is further complicated by a multitude of factors. For starters, genetics affect how people perceive different flavors, creating what’s known as a supertaster or non-taster. A supertaster has significantly more papillae than a non-taster, hence their higher sensitivity to the core flavor profiles. As a result, they show less preference for sweet, fatty, spicy, and bitter foods while non-tasters demonstrate the opposite. Socioeconomic factors, age, and health have huge long-term implications on food preference as well. Aging leads to the deterioration of taste buds, decreasing the overall sensitivity to specific flavors. Objectively sweet food might become bland. Along with age comes acquired tastes created by constant exposure and familiarity. Things like coffee or cheese, despite their objectively horrible taste and putrid smell that go against natural bodily reactions, become desired. How one perceives taste can also be influenced by immediate causes like hunger, which heightens sensitivity or even food cravings for specific comfort foods. These cravings stem from a sentimental value caused by one’s culture or general nostalgia. The taste is affected by previous experiences with the food and generates feel-good responses.

With so many contributing factors, everyone has different preferences. Everything from genetics, culture, gender, age, and health affect this ever-changing definition that the brain associates with deliciousness. So to revisit the question, what are the secrets behind “delicious” food? The answer: you.