Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sensory Nutrition

The Monell Center for taste and smell research sheds some light on the emerging field of Sensory Nutrition. Sure we're all human, and all made of the same stuff, and all programmed by DNA that is pretty darn similar. But we are not the same. We don't even taste or smell things the same, and much of that difference starts with our DNA.

Boy did I have a great conversation the other night about a friend of a friend who tried to fuse Mexican food into a Korean city's cuisine. Didn't work. Why? Cilantro, that's why.

Ambitious food alchemist didn't do his homework -- Asians in general tend to taste cilantro as "soap," i.e., gross. This isn't about preference, it's about genetics. For whatever reason, some of us code cilantro as soap and others as the most refreshing herb ever.

Monell researchers could have told him that. They're using big data, machine learning, and genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to understand the interface between sensory science, nutrition, and dietetics. They're ultimately trying to see if we can guide people into the right public health intervention just based on their genes.

Behavioral geneticist Danielle Reed, PhD, and olfactory neurobiologist Joel Mainland, PhD, helped to mine 400,000 reviews of 67,000 food products posted by 256,000 Amazon customers over 10 years. That's the big data part. The machine learning part analyzed words related to taste and smell, as well as other categories related to health.

Output? People today think food is too sweet. Wow. Never would have guessed that. No matter kind of food they were talking about, one percent of all reviews used the words "too sweet."

On the other side of the taste spectrum, and from a totally different study – there's a gene that helps you taste bitter, but if you have a hyped-up version, you will taste too much bitter, especially in vegetables like dark greens. Maybe even other bitter things coffee and beer will taste way different to you.

For reference (go ahead, dial up your time machine to about ten years into the future and pull up your DNA database), it's the taste gene TAS2R38. It codes for bitter-taste receptors on the tongue. And it has two variants, the AVI and PAV variants. Depending on the combination, you'll have a very different experience with certain bitter chemicals.

So the headline is that we're hardwired to like or dislike vegetables. Camouflaging bitter tastes with culinary creativity might not hurt. Just make sure to do your homework.

Monell Center, Philadelphia PA

Nov 2019, BBC News

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