There are those of us who will have an affinity for savoury instead of sweet and sour in lieu of heat. But what do these flavor profiles mean and why is that our bodies react in favour of some and uncertainty to others?
Oriel sea salt is the perfect example of how our bodies crave delicious, mineral-rich sources of wonderful seasoning but what is that inclines us towards it? To understand that we must first investigate the complimenting and contrasting flavor profiles that are imperative to attaining the perfect dish.
Sour and Bitter
The mere sight of a diner squinting their eyes and puckering their lips in response to something sour is an image that most of us can conjure up on command. The moment of naivety as the lemonade passes the lips and hits the tongue, causing one to scrunch their face against overt acidity etched into our mind’s eye as we ask ourselves – why in god’s name do we keep coming back for more? For most people, the thought of sourness in our food and drink inspires a sense of caution, each one of us taking the description more as a warning than a reason to abandon all inhibition. Sour sweets, sour beer, these things do act more as binary indicators of enjoyment rather than blanket terms, welcoming all in presupposed inclination - you’ll love this, it’s good and sour - aren’t words most of us have heard before, so why is it that we have a predilection towards the very thing that distorts our faces into funny masks, and why is it that sourness is revered by all animal groups, whilst so many other flavor profiles have fallen by the wayside long before?
The study of taste receptors in animals has not only been extensively researched but is also undoubtedly fascinating. In the quest to understand the impact that different flavor profiles have on numerous animal groups researchers studied the response of various species to sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, and sourness, discovering that while certain groups such as dolphins and whales had lost all sensation of taste bar saltiness, other groups such as cats and dogs could not detect sweetness in their foods and instead had developed the ability to recognize adenosine triphosphate, the molecule present in meat and necessary for powering every cell in the body. The question of sourness then arises and while it might seem fair that should sweetness and bitterness have been abandoned long ago that sourness would have been disposed of by some animal groups too, but it appears that the overwhelming majority of animals have held onto this gustatory resource, favouring it above all the rest. The reason why animals should favour sourness over sweetness and bitterness has been suggested as stemming from our evolutionary beginnings, as the original vertebrae - fish – first used the presence of sourness in their surroundings to detect dissolved carbon dioxide that could prove potentially harmful. These vertebrates used their entire body to taste the waters in which they swam, the beginnings of tastebuds for self-preservation epitomized in this case at its most refined. The change of tastebuds from environmental identifiers to dietary signifiers in animals such as horses, bats, and rabbits; each species recognizing sourness as a cause to recoil; is thought to be on account of the diets these animals consume. The presence of a sour taste in fruits can hint that the produce has not yet ripened and is best steered clear of whilst the harmful elements of acidic foodstuffs; eroding tooth enamel, interrupting body chemistry, and upsetting stomach microorganisms are thought to be a reason why sour foods are mainly stomached in moderation. The relationship between sour foods and human beings is one also thought to be grounded in evolution as sixty to seventy million years ago our ancestors lost the ability to self-produce vitamin C - an essential component of a healthful diet – and this sourness that we recognize today is an indicator of citric acid in our food that spares us from archaic afflictions such as scurvy.
The function of sourness as a dietary signifier is one that aided in our search for foodstuffs that would satisfy our nutritional needs, but what would happen if we looked upon the opposite end of the spectrum and searched for the flavor profile that repelled us from that which we shouldn’t consume - undoubtedly bitterness would rear its ugly head.
The sensation of bitterness as it impacts our tastebuds is a gastronomic gut punch that forces us back a step before we can move forward and make sense of the powdery unpleasantness that rings around our mouths. The usual suspects, the dark-coloured greens and supple berries that punctuate our diets are prime culprits of bitterness for a reason generations ago our ancestors needed to distinguish plant life that might cause intestinal discomfort - and in dire cases death. This recognition of bitterness as bad is something that aided our ancestors' generations before and although some diners might attempt to steer clear of bitter foods the truth is that this unique flavor goes a long way to improving our health.
The bitter elements of our diets go a long way to supercharging our gastrointestinal tract as the consumption of dark leafy greens causes the production of saliva as well as digestive juices in the stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas and intestines that combat inflammation and boost antioxidants that protect the body from free radicals. The manner in which bitter compounds interact with the body is a fascinating one as the digestive tract is fitted with receptors that instruct the body to use more energy when we consume more food. These receptors although effective in their function do not operate without first being stimulated and it is through the consumption of bitter compounds that they come to life allowing our body to get more from the foods we eat.
The benefits of eating more leafy greens and alkaloid foodstuffs are clear to see, but what can be done for those people who simply cannot stomach the idea of eating more greens or foods that have been touched by the bitter beast? Well, it turns out that all those who dislike bitter foods need to do to begin appreciating the nuanced flavor is to start eating more bitter foods, and often. Studies on rats have revealed that after repeated exposure to bitter flavours, the composition of digestive proteins in their saliva started to change. These changes in protein composition led to a change in the feeding behaviour of the animals, as at first, they ate less of the bitter foods, but as their saliva changed, the rats began to eat and enjoy more of the bitter foods. The same experiment was carried out using human participants who were asked to drink chocolate almond milk three times a day for a week and rate its bitterness after every session. The researchers found that the protein composition of the participants’ saliva changed during that week as several proline-rich proteins that bind the bitter compounds in chocolate increased after drinking the chocolate almond milk. The changes in these proteins corresponded to the change in sensory ratings signifying that as these proteins shifted up, the sensory ratings for bitterns shifted down.
It seems that when nature needs to find a way it will find a way!
Sweet and Salty
Our infatuation with sweetness transcends food and language and has almost become a state of ecstasy plastered on billboards and flashed across ad campaigns to illuminate the aspirational levity that can only be achieved through thirst-quenching elixirs and dew-dropped deserts, perspiring on account of their unimaginable decadence. This religion of the sapid has become so ubiquitous that no longer do we question its infallibility, and like the sun in the sky and the wind in the wings, we accept that honeyed goodness grants us happiness and that without sweetness our lives would be lacking in the extreme.
But what is the reason most humans cannot go without sugar for an extended period before their hearts begin to race and their brows begin to sweat as the popping sound of a soda can coming open elicits elation and lures us to sup? Might it be evolutionary as is the case with our love/hate relationship with sour foods or could it be learned like our adaptability to bitter greens? The answer to our sugar inclination is a little bit of both.
Researchers that used mice to better understand the relationship between vertebrates and sugar discovered that after a period of fasting the mice when offered their regular food and a solution of sugar and water chose to drink the solution in place of their regular meals. The researchers, tracing the response of the mice, noted that the animals exhibited behaviours akin to drug abuse – the mice binging, withdrawing, and then craving the solution until it was offered to them again. The human response to sugar is much the same, as the release of dopamine into our systems after ingesting sugar not only motivates us to find more but also requires higher amounts to achieve the same ends. The sugar that our ancestors once foraged for and spent laborious hours pulling through the bush to find was an abundant source of energy in an energy-scarce world. Centuries ago, when sugar was in short supply and found primarily in fruits, those who were able to forage the fastest and find the most plentiful supplies of fruit were also the ones who lived longest and procreated more copiously, encoding into our brains that sugar was not just desirable but essential to survival. This genetic encoding matched with the ravenous sugar industry today and the countless confectionary companies vying for your every cent means that our preference towards sugar has been exploited to the point of cerebral explosion. Unlike bitterness and sourness, two indicators of potentially harmful substances, sweetness is the epitome of energy, something that the body cannot unlearn no matter how harmful we understand excessive sugar intake to be. The combination of sugar becoming more and more refined and more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and our innate preference towards the substance does leave us a lot like those mice, binging to reach satiation and then craving our fix until it comes again.
But whilst sweetness is sought after and excess sugar invigorates us with haphazard highs, where then does saltiness fall on the flavour spectrum of desirability? It’s safe to say that saltiness much like its sugared counterpart is something that attracts diners and keeps them picking long after the desire to do so has abated. But is not also true that excess saltiness inspires a certain disgust in us that causes one to push aside their dish and scrub their tongue clean of the offending party? How is it that salt interacts with our foods and why do we crave it in small quantities but recoil when a punch of salt makes it into our mouths unannounced? Some questions have been answered already and others are utterly fascinating.
The simple answer as to why salt is acceptable to our bodies in small amounts and refused in large doses is that our bodies calibrate our response to substances that are essential for continued health but in excess can cause discomfort. Salt is no different in this regard. Our ancestors through their ancient meat-based diets consumed their salt through the animals that sought out mineral-rich salt licks to sustain their energies. Our ancestors ate the animals that consumed the salt and when they moved onto more agricultural means of supporting their diets the salt still needed to be supplemented as it had become integral to their wellbeing. This salt much the same as sugar was something that provided our ancestors with greater longevity and therefore our bodies like fine-tuned machines programmed us to seek it out whenever it came available. Salt today is primarily used to season our foods and although we might believe that our infatuation with the small white crystal derives from necessity the truth is that salt makes flavor come alive in ways its multifaceted siblings simply cannot.
The interaction between salt and the food we eat is grounded in science, whereby the properties of salt encourage change in the raw materials making them more palatable and aromatic than they would be without. In the case of salt’s influence on proteins (think, steak, hamburgers…) the mineral does much the same work as heat during the process of cooking, it unravels the protein strands in the meat and causes them to become loose and supple. Seasoning your meat before cooking causes the protein strands to loosen and should one cook their beef or chicken or fish past the point of maturation to where it is safe to eat these protein strands start to double back on themselves and begin to knot causing the protein strands to become tough and rubberlike. That is the reason some chefs suggest seasoning your beef and chicken at the end of cooking, to ensure that the process of protein maturation has ceased and that the moisture that is drawn out from the meat by the salt can actually rest on top of the food before soaking back in and imbuing the meat with flavours richer than before. This is an interesting point to consider as the opposite suggestion can be levied against seasoning your eggs at the end of cooking and instead, one in search of the perfect creamy scramble might want to season their bowls at the beginning. The reason for this is that denaturing the proteins in your eggs earlier as opposed to later allows for a lighter mixture that is fluffier and easier to whisk ensuring the egg white wraps around the air bubbles you're incorporating into your batch and resides there right up until the point of cooking. The reason why your eggs do not become knotted in the same way as your hamburger and steaks is due to the temperature used in cooking each dish; as with our steak and hamburgers we usually prefer a greater heat to seal in all that flavor whilst with eggs and omelettes we cook them on lower heats so not to incur any burning. This lower heat allows for the proteins to unravel gradually and the threat of seizing your meat and expelling essential moisture is eliminated too.
But consider the influence of salt on aroma and one can enter an entirely new realm of flavour fascination, as not only does salt change the texture of foods it changes their chemistry too. This is primarily experienced through the ability of salt to encourage aroma molecules to depart our dishes and make their way towards our noses. The more an aroma molecule or flavor wants to depart our dishes the easier it is for salt to coax it out, ensuring that the flavours and nuances in our favourite meals can really come to life as not only does salt enhance the sensation of taste bringing our mouth and nose into alignment it also triggers our brains to sensationalize the dish itself as the presence of salt as a useful mineral causes our brains to decide there is something of use in the food we eat - and if there is something of use in the food we eat, then perhaps we should be paying it more attention to it too!
Salt as seasoning and salt as an enhancer for lagging dishes is a foregone conclusion as the inclusion of the mineral supercharges are tastebuds whilst boosting our ingredients to heights that otherwise would be difficult to attain. The selection of Oriel sea salts; their natural mineral sea salt, kiln-dried mineral sea salt, and Teeling whiskey smoked sea salt can infuse and inspire our favourite meals and with the inclusion of its bitter, sweet, and sour counterparts one can find the balance that our body so frequently craves.