Event Recap: The Science of Delicious
When you’re enjoying a nice meal, you typically wouldn’t want to be asked to suck on a little strip of paper that may or may not taste horrifically bitter…but at National Geographic Live‘s event, The Science of Delicious, scientific wonders like that piece of paper were what made the evening so memorable.
The event was designed to bring to life a story in the magazine’s December issue, which explored the science behind how we taste. It was presented in partnership with Chaplin’s Restaurant, who provided a full selection of cocktails, and a delicious dinner that included a Bento Box (Wakame Salad, Beef Gyoza, Tori Karaage & Chicken Yakisoba) and a steaming bowl of Chaplin’s signature ramen as only Chef Myo Htun can prepare it.
During the continuous stream of cocktails and food, Pam Caragol, the executive producer of “EAT: The Story of Food,” introduced an impressive panel of experts.
First, Senior Photo Editor Todd James spoke about the difficulties of photographing something as abstract as taste. As you can see from the selection of photos in that accompany the story, photographer Brian Finke (who was not present at the event), managed to pull it off. To capture his images, he traveled to Noma’s “science bunker” in Copenhagen, blind taste test facilities at the University of Florida, and the Culinary Institute of America.
James shared the story behind each image, speaking with a sense of awe regarding Noma’s ventures into culinary experimentation. In their ‘bunker,’ Noma’s scientists have a rotary evaporator they use to extract the essence from various substances, and they even created an “umami meter” to measure flavor (it’s essentially a rudimentary mass spectrometer). James also mentioned the work of another lab in Copenhagen, the Nordic Food Lab, which is working to change societal prejudices against certain nutritious foods that have been deemed “undesirable,” such as insects or fish guts. The researchers at the Food Lab focus on ingredients’ inherent flavors, not socially accepted stigmas, and they are helping to balance the food system by encouraging people to eat in a way that is more ecologically friendly.
The assignment also sent Finke to a neuroscience lab at Louisiana State University where the scientists study catfish. James explained that catfish are the super tasters of the animal world – their skin and outer body parts (gills, lips, etc.) are covered with taste buds! This explains how catfish can find food in murky water.
After James provided some insight into how the story was photographed, Julie Menella, a scientist who was featured in the article, provided an eye-opening look at how we taste. Menella is a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, where she studies the sense of taste in babies and toddlers. She’s the one who asked us to suck on that bitter piece of paper. The piece of paper was actually coated with a mysterious bitter agent which only tastes bitter to certain people. Some licked the paper over an over again, but tasted nothing. Others noticed a subtle hint of bitterness. Others, like myself, were overwhelmed by a horribly bitter flavor that lingered far longer than I would have liked!
This was actually a very fascinating experiment, because tasting bitter in this test is one of the factors that means you *might* be a super taster! Apparently, about 25% of the population is a super taster, while 25% is a non-taster. Super taster status is determined by dying the tongue blue, pressing it up against a microscope slide, and then meticulously counting all the little taste buds! I was shocked to learn that humans have just one sweet receptor and 25 bitter receptors. Our natural affinity for sweetness is something that we are born with, because it is evolutionary beneficial to be attracted to sweet substances that pack calories – and therefore energy.
However, our other taste preferences begin to develop in the womb during the 2nd trimester. Menella explained that the amniotic fluid in the womb transfers flavors from the mother’s diet to the fetus. (Mental note: eat lots of kale when pregnant in an attempt to avoid creating a picky eater!) After birth, our taste buds continue to develop, but we can’t actually taste salt until we are 4 months old!
Menella also demonstrated how interconnected taste and smell are by asking us to plug our noses while chewing on a jelly bean (a much more tolerable experiment). Then, mid-chew, she had us unplug our noses to unleash an even stronger flavor that couldn’t be detected before. This explains why food never tastes as good when you have a cold.
To finish out the night, cocktail geniuses Ari and Micah Wilder (who own Chaplin’s), joined Menella in a panel to answer questions from the audience – ranging from “Why do pregnant women have crazy cravings?” to “What’s the worst cocktail you’ve ever made?”
The night was the perfect combination of fascinating science discoveries and delectable flavors. For more events like this, check National Geographic Live’s calendar!