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What Makes Food Taste Good?—SFC Breakfast Meeting

Posted: August 8, 2007

During the Society of Flavor Chemists' Chicago IFT Expo breakfast meeting, Technical Products' Steven Witherly dissected the human obsession with junk food, drawing from theories and insights appearing in his book "Why Humans Like Junk Food." Flavorists are in the pleasure business, said Witherly, who defined food pleasure as sensation + calories. So what exactly makes food taste good? 

The speaker began by pointing out that MSG is highly desired by humans because it signals the presence of protein, which the body instinctually craves for survival. Witherly cited the 2006 Science study by Stephen Goff and Harry Klee—"Plant Volatile Compounds: Sensory Cues for Health and Nutritional Value?" This report gave weight to the idea that humans enjoy food aromas that signal nutrient-rich foods. Humans like more aroma complexity, Witherly said, not less. Given this, it's no wonder that MSG reduction/replacement attempts have been problematic. Interestingly, Witherly noted that garlic triggers the MSG receptors, perhaps accounting for its popularity. Similarly, lactic acid triggers the salt receptor. Perhaps this is an avenue of research for salt reduction in foods. However, Witherly warned that changing any food aspect by more than 30% will alert the body, meaning product tweaks must be subtle.

The mouth contains two or three receptors for fat, the speaker said. Meanwhile, sucrose/salt is the third most potent pleasure stimulator, putting it on par with narcotics. Yet Witherly noted that somatic sensation—which consists of the various mouthfeel/textural aspects of food experience (pain, temperature, pressure, texture, etc.)—is stronger than taste alone. For example, he said, the reason people like spicy foods is that the pain induced releases a pleasurable endorphin surge and cannabinoids, which are similar to the tetrahydrocannabinol found in marijuana. Another interesting ingredient Witherly cited is Sichuan flower pepper, which releases endorphins and possesses a numbing sensation.