The Science of Taste
Ever wonder why people in Southeast Asia love spicy food, while many Europeans don’t? While there are obvious reasons why some people prefer certain flavours to others – for example, depending on regional agriculture, we may develop preferences to what’s always grown and available near us. However, it can also be a mystery, like how in members of the same family can grow up with different food preferences.
There are many factors that go into someone’s preferred tastes: cultural background, emotional attachment to the person cooking for you, and some astrologers even claim your zodiac sign influences your preferred flavours!
The science behind personal flavour preferences is actually a lot more complex than just “what you grew up eating”; geographical positioning, hormones and even evolution are all factors that determine an individual’s palate.
If you’ve ever wondered why you prefer the flavours you do, here are some interesting facts about why certain personalities gravitate to particular flavours more than others.
Even without science-based evidence, we can probably see from our own observations that women crave sweet things more than men. But it is not due to a lack of willpower. Smart white coat scientists have multiple studies linking the female hormone estradiol to the sweet tooth. Explains why ladies dig into chocolate during her special time of the month.
It is also worth mentioning that people whose regular diet includes high amount of sweet food and carbohydrates are likely facing a form of addiction, whereby the regular sugar intake stimulates the reward centre of the brain, making it a difficult cycle to break.
Many of us may consider that you’re only a real Malaysian if you confess to loving spicy food, but it’s not just because our spicy dishes are so tasty, and might have something to do with… mosquitoes!
When we consume spicy food, we are digesting a heat-producing compound known as capsaicin. After consuming capsaicin-containing food such as chillies and capsicums, your body then releases a smell that is known to repel mosquitoes and act as an irritant for bugs.
Besides Asian countries, other countries on the South American and African continents are also known to have a lot of spices in traditional and local cooking. And so a love for spicy food could just be an evolutionary thing we learned from living in more humid locations (compared to Europe and North America for example, where it is less humid and therefore have less mosquitoes).
However, similar to a sugar addiction, studies suggest that an affinity for spicy food can be developed, whereby you crave the rush and endorphin released from the ‘burning sensation’ that you get when eating chilli-laden dishes!
Prehistorically, men differentiated various produce such as fruits to be either safe or unsafe for consumption based on whether it was sweet or bitter. Sweet means safe; bitter means poison. What a reputation!
However, a 2015 study in the journal Appetite (a monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal) found that people who love bitter food are more likely to be psychopaths! While trying to determine if people with bitter-leaning preferences were antisocial, researchers found that a love for the bitter taste also relates to sadism and narcissism (yikes!).
But it’s not all bad! If you do lean towards bitter food, it means that you’ve somehow managed to evolve from prehistoric instincts – and that, indeed, is good news. However, less of a concern in modern times with most bitter items on shelves are 100% safe for consumption.
While not fully conclusive, studies in a neuroscientific journal shared that sour food, like sweets, can trigger a feel-good effect in the brain. The acidic sensation on our taste receptors can cause a release of the neurotransmitter (ie. brain chemical) known as serotonin. This hormone influences our appetite, sexual desires, feelings of well-being, and overall happiness.
Other activities that can stimulate a serotonin release include exercising and massages. So if you’re ever looking for a natural anti-depressive, time to go out and get some sour gummies and citrus fruits!
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