Accounting for Taste

My ninety-five year old Dad's cardiologist recently put him on a low salt diet. He's finding that without salt his food has lost its taste and he's lost his appetite. He suggested I write something about taste.

How do we develop taste? If you ever fed a baby, you've witnessed a human discovering taste - the expression of shock or delight when a new food is introduced - even something like pureed carrots that the average adult would consider pretty mundane. Our taste evolves over time depending upon our exposure to foods as well as our genetic makeup. 

Some of our preferences are related to the foods we associate with comfort and celebration, which would have a distinct relationship to the culture in which we are raised. There is scientific evidence that infants who are breastfed grow up to have more varied tastes than those fed formula due to the different flavours they experience in breast milk which is related to the mother's diet. I don't personally recall. 

Why are some cuisines fairly bland whereas others are heavily spiced? It is interesting that most spicy cuisines originate in tropical climates. There are three theories as to why this is. In tropical climates foods will spoil more quickly and spices help either delay spoilage or mask the off flavour of spoiled food. The plants species that provide heat to food, primarily the Capsicum genus of hot peppers is native to tropical areas. The third theory is that eating hot foods causes you to sweat which provides a cooling effect in a hot climate. Looking for some shade might be a little less painful. 

We have the ability to sense five types of taste - sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savoury or umami. Sweet is believed to be important as it helps us to identify calorie-rich sugary foods that at one time were important for energy. When we were hunter-gatherers, sweet foods were relatively rare and likely mostly seasonal. Agriculture production brought sugar to the masses and we now eat more sugary foods than we should to the detriment of our health.  

Bitter and sour tastes are thought to have evolved, in part, to help us identify potentially toxic plants or spoiled foods, which would be dangerous to consume. That said, I enjoy many bitter and sour foods like bitterly hoppy India Pale Ale, grapefruits and sauerkraut. The infamous childhood candy Sweet Tarts lured us with a sweet and sour taste that is very appealing. Umami is the most recently identified taste - the savoury flavour we most often associate with soups and broths. 

Salt is a paradox. Our bodies need the ions salt provides to regulate physiological processes within our body. But too much can cause problems - high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and death. At one time in human existence, salt was relatively scarce which perhaps caused us to crave salt so we would be sure to consume sufficient quantities when we found it. At one time salt was so valuable it was considered a currency. Now we dump it on our roads so we can avoid driving on ice. The salt content of our ground and surface water is slowly increasing to the detriment of our drinking water quality.

Our taste for salt is universal and most of us consume far more than our bodies need. Unfortunately when we try to reduce salt consumption, food can lose its taste. The good news is that, although we have to go through a difficult period as our taste buds adapt to a lower salt diet, we can eventually learn to enjoy a low salt diet. When previously enjoyed salt-rich foods are given to people who have adapted to a low salt diet, they find that they taste too salty. 

We would all be healthier joining my Dad in reducing dietary salt. We can ramp up the taste of our food using some of the other taste sensations, especially spicy. My Dad has been using Chipotle pepper powder instead of salt with some success. As with any change in diet or habit, there will be a period of adjustment and adaptation. Patience and persistence is the key.

Photo by Calum Lewis

1 comment

  • Krys

    Krys St. Marys

    Luckily I have never been a fan of salt. And since my salt loving partner salts everything anyway - just can't get him to taste first - I cook without salt except for potatoes and what my chef friend calls salt for grownups - anchovies. On the other hand I almost always add fresh ground pepper and carry it with me for places that don't offer it. My heavy smoking brother took up cooking at an advanced age and mostly made inedible dishes trying to get something he could taste by dumping in half a container of various herbs and spices. I don't know if I am a super-taster but definitely a super-smeller lol My cooking suffers from the fact that I have a curious aversion to tasting it before serving. If it smells right I assume it will taste so and hence some failures. Though not in the direction of my brother's!​ My preference is for sour and bitter flavours over salt and sweet. I wonder if that is a genetic trick, since Paul prefers sweet and salt. ​ I am still working on what exactly umami is.

    Luckily I have never been a fan of salt. And since my salt loving partner salts everything anyway - just can't get him to taste first - I cook without salt except for potatoes and what my chef friend calls salt for grownups - anchovies. On the other hand I almost always add fresh ground pepper and carry it with me for places that don't offer it. My heavy smoking brother took up cooking at an advanced age and mostly made inedible dishes trying to get something he could taste by dumping in half a container of various herbs and spices.

    I don't know if I am a super-taster but definitely a super-smeller lol My cooking suffers from the fact that I have a curious aversion to tasting it before serving. If it smells right I assume it will taste so and hence some failures. Though not in the direction of my brother's!​

    My preference is for sour and bitter flavours over salt and sweet. I wonder if that is a genetic trick, since Paul prefers sweet and salt. ​

    I am still working on what exactly umami is.

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