Thursday, December 13, 2012

One Man's Funk is Another Man's Pleasure

"Ugh, yuck! How could someone eat that?" 

Ever find yourself wondering this? Or maybe someone asked you how you could stomach sardines, that ridiculously hot wing, or anything with mayo. Would you eat fried tarantulas, sip on snake wine, or crack open a Balut (look it up, we dare you)? What makes us like what we like and hate what we hate?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, there is the external cultural influence. Our family, and more importantly our culture, has a significant influence on the food and drink that we consume. This is the factor that steers one culture to the brains over the bacon, or to the feet over the fat. If you're raised thinking a certain food is the norm, then naturally it is difficult to understand how others might find it troubling. Would it surprise you to know that the savory and sweet mix of maple bacon is a turn-off outside of the US? Or that our soft bread is a wonder to some and cheese is strange to the Chinese?

The second part of the answer has to do with our tongues and noses. The amount of papillae (those little bumps on our tongues of which the vast majority house taste buds) an individual has determines the intensity of flavor sensation. The more papillae, the more one is apt to order things mild or take their coffee with extra cream. These people are called "supertasters", presumably because their tolerance for extremes is super low. On the other end of the spectrum are the "nontasters" or "subtasters", individuals that can order those ghost chili pepper wings and cry tears of joy, not pain, for the complexity of the heat and flavor. A nontaster's papillae density is lower than a supertaster's, meaning that there are fewer buds to overwhelm. 

Think of a papilla as a bouncer working for Club Flavor Experience. Supertasters have hired the worst possible candidate. He's weak, easily overwhelmed, and can't stop letting everyone in - even the guys in t-shirts and sneakers. Nontasters went a different route and got that huge guy that does two-a-day lifting sessions at your gym. He only lets in the people you want to see, isn't afraid of slamming a door in someone's face, and is all about letting the party rage inside.

What's happening here is that when a supertaster chomps into a jalapeño (for this analogy, a t-shirted clubber), the door stays wide open, and with each subsequent bite, more and more casual joe-schmos flood the club. The flavor becomes overwhelming and the signal to the brain that shouts, "Spicy!" never abates. Nontasters, on the other hand, savor the flavor as 
the door shuts on the schlubs, and the party continues inside. They are able to continue to eat, taste, and enjoy, as the heat never overpowers.

But it's not all about the papillae. Our brain can only detect 5 tastes; sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and savory (10 point synonym for savory? umami), but the chemicals that trigger those flavors are different from one person to the next. Additionally, food odor molecules that travel through your nasal passage or nostrils have a strong influence on flavor. When the passage is blocked due to sickness, or when your nose is held, flavor all but disappears from food. 

So the next time you find yourself wondering how on earth someone can enjoy a particular dish, remember that there's much more at work than just a simple, "I dare you!" 

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