When I was in graduate school at Drexel University in Philadelphia, I was taught “if a food doesn’t taste good – no matter how healthy it is – it doesn’t get eaten.” A very memorable student visit to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, right down the street from Drexel, reinforced that concept. Monell is the world’s only independent, non-profit scientific institute dedicated to basic research on taste and smell. It was where the sense of taste, finally made sense to me!
Monell’s scientists showed me that our sense of taste is anything but ordinary. I came to realize it is a highly complex neurobiological process. While at the Center I learned that taste information travels to higher brain centers, where knowledge about taste occurs, and that taste information influences our concept of flavor and is a major impact on food selection.
It’s believed that the sense of taste evolved to protect us from eating things that are poisonous and to ensure we get the calories and nutrients we need. Many poisons are either bitter or sour – so often people reject foods with these tastes. However, salty and sweet tasting foods ensure that we meet our nutritional requirements for sodium (an essential nutrient)) and carbohydrates (needed to provide glucose, our brain’s fuel source). A fifth taste, umami – or savory – encourages us to eat foods rich in glutamate, an amino acid found in meats, cheeses, and tomatoes that signals the presence of protein.
The reason many foods taste good is often due to the salt content of the food. Yet over the past decade, recommendations from leading health organizations have included the need to reduce salt (sodium) in our diets. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), the sodium salt of glutamate, can be a key ingredient for people on a low-sodium diet, as it boosts the flavor of a dish while reducing the need for salt. Studies have shown that by increasing the level of glutamate and decreasing the level of salt, sodium content can be lowered by up to 40 percent, while still maintaining the desired flavor. For people who need to reduce sodium in their diet, if they replace some or all of the salt with MSG, the flavor of the dish will be boosted and sodium will be reduced.
In 2015 Drexel and Monell partnered on a sensory science of food education program. The partnership, known as the Drexel-Monell Food Science Program, provides students with advanced sensory training and real-world laboratory-based research experience. Students benefit from unique training in both the chemical senses and food science. Both institutions now work together on cutting-edge research programs that focus on understanding the mechanisms and functions of the sense of taste, its relationship to flavor, and smell and define the broad significance of these senses in human health and disease. I wish I were in graduate school now!
Read more information on taste and flavor here (PDF).