Have We Become a Nation of Flabby Palates?

2671956629_c10feaee0bBarb Stuckey describes herself as a professional taster.  For the last 16 years she’s worked for a food-and-beverage development firm to help create new products.

She’s combined her expertise in product development with the science of taste in the new book Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good.  I just read a fascinating article Ms. Stuckey wrote for the Wall Street Journal called For Healthy Eating, Bitter is Better, along with a Q & A in the journal’s online magazine Speakeasy.

She describes her frustration over the unwillingness of most Americans to try foods that challenge their palates.

She believes we’ve become a nation of flabby palates — preferring sweetness over bitterness — and that’s one reason that our physiques have become flabby, too.  Expanding our repertoire of foods isn’t just about exploration and new pleasures, she says. It’s also the first step toward eating a broader, healthier diet.

We are born loving sweetness, so we heap sugar into our lattes and drown our Chinese food in sweet sauces. But constantly indulging our craving for sweetness has an insidious effect.  With each new overly sweet food that we consume, whether it is high in calories or not, we dull our palates to other tastes and flavors, especially those of nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Expanding our palates is especially important for young children — a topic I previously wrote about for the Chicago Tribune. Keith Ayoob, pediatric nutritionist at Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York City, told me:

Our children’s palates are being dumbed down by greasy, salty and sweet foods and drinks. Once they get used to these flavors, the taste threshold is set so high that fresh fruits aren’t sweet enough and vegetables taste too bitter.

Dr. David Ludwig, a childhood obesity expert in Boston and author of Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World, told me that he worries we’re stunting children’s taste buds. He said the extra-intense artificial flavors that dominate “kid food” interfere with a child’s natural tendency to develop a broader palate.

Our taste preferences, by nature, are designed to broaden over time, but we’re short-circuiting basic biological pathways and warping children’s taste buds. We’re essentially putting the breaks on children’s palates and preventing them from appreciating more natural and healthful food.

The good news is that our tongue is a unique muscle and the best way to exercise it is not to flex or fatigue it, but to stretch it.  Here are some of Ms. Stuckey’s exercise tips for your palate:

1. Eat more bitter foods. One study found that only 5-8% of the calories we eat are bitter. But the compounds that make foods taste bitter (carotenoids in sweet potatoes and spinach, flavonoids in cranberries and kale) also make them good for us.  While we may be born with an aversion to bitterness, we can learn to appreciate these foods.  In Asian cultures, Ms Stuckey writes, they teach kids that bitter foods are good for them and they’re more likely to enjoy them at an earlier age.
2. Try something new. At a restaurant, order something you would never cook at home.  Instead of recoiling at the smell of something foreign and pungent, get to know it better.
3. Do a hated horizontal. Pick a food you hate but know you should eat more often, and teach yourself a bit a bout it.  By sampling across a whole category of food — beans, for instant, if they are your most hated food — you are more likely to notice and appreciate the differences in textures, colors, flavors, tastes.  Wine tasters call this a horizontal tasting.  Find your leased-hated bean and eat them once a day for a week.  At the end of the week, if you still hate them, you’re free to take a pass.
4. Eat more ethnic food. Trying new cuisines and unfamiliar flavors, such as Vietnamese, Lebanese, Afghan and other ethnic food, is one of the best and enjoyable ways to exercise your taste buds and olfactory anatomy.
5. Quiz yourself. Ms. Stuckey describes how she keeps a couple of spice jars on her counter with the labels obscured.  Every now and then she picks one up, sticks her nose in it and sees if she can identify it.  With skills like this, you’ll be looking for ways to flex your palate, she says.

Too much sweetness and not enough bitterness makes food taste flabby.  To help kids avoid flabby palates, Ms Stuckey thinks we should be teaching about taste.

I believe that the cause of many of our public health issues is that we don’t teach our children food appreciation. If we made this a part of school curriculum, we’d raise kids that not only appreciated the difference between bitter and sour, salty and umami, but actually sought out challenging flavors to entertain and enthrall themselves at the table. Usually challenging flavors equate to healthy foods. With palate education comes the desire for palate stimulation. When novice wine drinkers take a wine tasting class, the result is that they seek out more and more complex wines. The same holds true for food.

I love the idea of palate education.  What about you?

image courtesy of newsha111990 on flickr

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