IRA FLATOW, HOST:
This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Why are kids picky when it comes to eating broccoli or beets? You know, come to think of it, some presidents are picky about eating broccoli. Why does steak and red wine pair so well together, like, you know, coffee and cream? You can think of other pairings.
Why can't we resist the sizzling bacon or the mouthwatering chocolate? My next guest is a food inventor. She spends much of her day tasting and tweaking new food prototypes. A normal day for Barb Stuckey involves tasting 43 versions of the same vanilla cake. Do you want that job? Or having a spoonful of garlic puree before breakfast.
Now she's written a book about how to get the most enjoyment from your next meal. It's called "Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good." Barbara Stuckey joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
BARB STUCKEY: Hi, Ira, thanks for having me.
FLATOW: Is Barb short for Barbara?
STUCKEY: It is. I go by Barb, though.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: OK, I don't want to get stuck, so to speak. So I (unintelligible) how did you decide to write this book, "Taste What You're Missing"?
STUCKEY: Well, the book is really my personal story. It's 15 years of experience that I gained working alongside my brilliant colleagues, who are food technologists and chefs, combined with the last three or four years or so of research that I've been doing into the how's and why's of taste.
But most importantly, it - I decided to write this book because I was looking for a book that would explain to me very easily, in non-scientific terms, how we taste, how we experience food both physiologically and psychologically. And I searched for that book, and it didn't exist. So I decided to write it.
FLATOW: Well, don't we - I mean, isn't there - isn't it simple, we have taste buds, and then we smell some of the food and combine the two, and we know what food tastes like? Or it's not that simple?
STUCKEY: It seems simple at the outset, and we seem - we take it for granted. I mean, we're fortunate enough to be able to exercise our sense of taste and smell three times, if not more, a day. But what "Taste What You're Missing" is about is really stepping back, slowing down and understanding a little bit more about the mechanisms of what make up the concept of flavor, taste.
And so what I hope this book does is teach people a little bit more because we know that with greater understanding comes greater appreciation. And so the bottom line takeaway from this book, I hope, is a greater appreciation for food. And I'm not talking about just those meals where we go out to a fine restaurant, we - we're spending a lot of our money to have a special occasion meal.
I'm talking about those mundane meals that we have every day because there's joy and incredible sensory experiences in everything we put in our mouth.
FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to talk with Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste What You're Missing." And let's get right into this then, and talk about what is wrong with the way that most people taste food. What you're saying, we're not taking advantage of just eating a plain old meat-and-potatoes hamburger or something like that.
STUCKEY: Yeah, I don't think there's anything wrong. I'm just saying that I think we can do it a little bit better, with a little bit more understanding, and so that kind of starts with the critical understanding of the difference between taste and smell.
For example, we use the word taste colloquially to say, you know, do you like the taste of that, I like the taste of chocolate, I like the taste of red wine, but really taste is only five things. The sense of taste really is used to experience only sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami. And so...
FLATOW: What was the last one? What was the last one?
STUCKEY: The last one is umami, and umami is - it's a word that comes from the Japanese, and it is the taste of glutamate, which I'm sure that makes it clear as mud.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STUCKEY: It is - it's the sensation of meatiness or savoriness or perhaps brothiness, and it is present in a lot of foods that we crave. Parmesan cheese, for example, is very high in umami, high in the free glutamates that give the umami taste. Steak, obviously a nicely grilled steak is very meaty. That meatiness of the steak is umami. But that's just one of the five basic tastes.
And taste, I write in the book that I use an analogy of a piece of - a painting, a work of art. Taste really is like the outlines of the art. It's there to set up the structure. And what fills in the beauty, what fills in the lines and gives it is characteristic flavor is smell. And we really take for granted how much of our sense of flavor comes from our sense of smell.
FLATOW: Yeah, we have a little food experiment here.
STUCKEY: We do, we do, and Ira, I have to ask you one thing. I have to ask you to promise me that you will not release your nose until I tell you to do so.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLATOW: I don't know what I'm committing myself to, but I'm game. OK, I will not - OK, sure, what the heck. I mean, but I have to talk on the radio. So people are not going to like the way I sound, so - anyway, that's another topic. They don't like it already, but OK.
STUCKEY: OK, and listeners too, if you've got your fresh fruit in front of you. So Ira and listeners, what I'd like you to do is I'd like you to just plug your nose so that you start to sound funny, but you just can't breathe out of your nose.
STUCKEY: Now, what you're doing is - great, excellent. What you're doing is you're disabling the sense of smell. So now when you put food in your mouth, all you're going to have to rely on is your sense of taste, and those five basic tastes, and the texture of food.
So we're going to take a strawberry now. Do you have a strawberry in front of you?
FLATOW: I do.
STUCKEY: OK, keeping your nose plugged, you're going to take that strawberry and put it in your mouth and start chewing. And I'm going to ask you tell me – again, without unplugging your nose - what you are experiencing.
FLATOW: I can't taste anything, to tell you the truth. I can feel it.
STUCKEY: You can feel...
FLATOW: Yes, but hardly taste it.
STUCKEY: You can hardly taste anything, maybe just a little bit of sourness.
FLATOW: Yeah, a little bit of sourness, yeah.
STUCKEY: Little bit of sourness. You can maybe feel the strawberry seeds. Keep chewing, keep chewing. OK, now release your nose.
FLATOW: What a difference. Wow.
STUCKEY: And so that - what you're doing now is you're experiencing the retro-nasal olfaction, which is the way that we smell through our mouth as the vapors from the food, the volatile aromas, go back up our sinus cavity and reach our nose through our mouth. That's called retro-nasal olfaction or what I refer to as mouth-smelling.
FLATOW: It's true. You know, we've all done this when we were kids in school, but unless you really do it as an adult and think about it and watch it, it's a whole different reaction. You really do notice the difference. It's - I also, I've also noticed that your sight, you know, what you expect food - years ago, I used to do this show called "Newton's Apple" on PBS, and one of the things that they - they handed me once an ice cream cone with vanilla ice cream in it.
And they said have a taste. And I tasted it, and I could not figure out what was on the cone. And it turned out it was a scoop of mashed potatoes.
STUCKEY: Oh, wow. That's a good one.
FLATOW: But because I was told that that was vanilla ice cream, my mind had a crash with my senses, and I couldn't even figure out what it was until they said it's mashed potatoes. And I - oh, now I taste it, you know? It was really weird.
STUCKEY: Yes, and that's a great illustration of how important the sense of sight is. You know, we talk about eating with our eyes, but it really is true. Our sense of sight is the dominant sense when it comes to experiencing food. And that doesn't mean that it's most important. It just means that it's most influential.
So if I wanted to, I could serve you a glass of wine that had some - white wine that had some red color in it, or a glass of orange juice that had color in it that turned it pink, or any type of food that I had manipulated the color of. And what you do is you're going to default to your sense of sight because it happens first.
You see the food before you can even smell it, and certainly before you can taste it. You're going to default to that sense of taste - sorry, sense of sight, and then if what you're tasting doesn't match up with what you're seeing, you'll have a little bit of a difficult time making sense of that. So our reactions are much slower when what we're seeing doesn't match up with what we're tasting.
And in fact, just like you experienced with the mashed potatoes on the ice cream cone, our sense of sight can completely confound what we think we're tasting or smelling.
FLATOW: So is presentation, how you present the food, influence how it's tasting, you know? Does the fact that it's presented in - on a tray in an airplane at 40,000 feet mean it's going to taste different, or your expectations might be different?
STUCKEY: Absolutely. Presentation is very important. And you bring up an interesting point about eating at 30,000 feet. The - as we all know, if we're lucky enough to get served a meal in an airplane...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STUCKEY: ...food just doesn't seem to taste right on an airplane.
STUCKEY: And there's a lot of reasons why. And in the book, I go into some of the science behind why food tastes terrible on an airplane. And some of it is interestingly related to our sense of sound, our sense of hearing. And if you think about being on a plane, there's this very low-level, but very intense, constant noise in the background from the engine of the plane. And what scientists have discovered is that that low-level noise in the background has a somewhat masking effect on taste.
So whatever you're tasting on the airplane needs to be a little bit saltier or a little bit sweeter, or you're going to experience it as less salty or less sweet simply because that sound is masking the taste.
FLATOW: As a food inventor, which you are, do you think that they make the food, then, be more spicy or salty to overcome that hum?
STUCKEY: Well, yes. And the good airlines are doing that. In fact, Lufthansa tests their food - the menu as they're developing it - in an airplane fuselage, and they simulate both the atmosphere on the plane, as well as the sounds that you hear, as well as, you know, all of the other compromising elements, sensory elements of being on a plane.
FLATOW: Talking with Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good." In your book, you say that it's important for you to find a mate that shared or shares your passion for food, but it didn't quite turn out that way for you, did it?
STUCKEY: Well, yes and no. Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STUCKEY: It turned out that I did find a mate, my fiance, Roger, who is as passionate about food as I am. However, he has a - let's call it a much more limited repertoire of what he will actually eat. And that is - as we've learned through this process of doing research for the book - because he is built very differently than I am. His anatomy - and when I say anatomy, I'm talking about specifically his taste anatomy, which refers to the density of taste buds on his tongue.
His anatomy turns out to be such that when he tastes something, he experiences it as much more intense than someone who has a lower density of taste buds on his tongue and...
FLATOW: Well, let me go through - let me ask you - well, let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. And I'm talking with Barbara Stuckey, author of "Taste What You're Missing." Are you saying that we each have different numbers of taste buds on our tongues? Not - we all don't have the same number of taste buds?
STUCKEY: We all live in our own private sensory world. So yes, the answer is we all have a different anatomy picture that really influences how we experience...
STUCKEY: And so when someone like Roger has this incredible density of taste buds on his tongue, we call those people super-tasters. Or I refer to them in "Taste What You're Missing" as hyper-tasters. To me, it just sounds a little bit less caped crusader...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STUCKEY: ...than a super-taster. But what that means is that that people who have this type of anatomy, in combination with some genetic traits, are much more sensitive to sweetness, sourness. It turns out, they're also more sensitive to the heat that comes from jalapeno chilies, for example. And so...
FLATOW: Is there a test we can perform on ourselves to find out if we're a super-taster?
STUCKEY: Absolutely. In fact, there is. It's very simple. If you go to the grocery store and you buy some blue food coloring, you can take it home. And I caution you to be very careful. It will stain the rug in your house, as I am...
STUCKEY: ...living proof of.
FLATOW: I hate it when that happens, you know.
STUCKEY: Take that blue food coloring, dip a Q-tip into it, and then paint that Q-tip of blue food coloring all over your tongue, so that you're coating the taste buds of your tongue with blue and...
FLATOW: Don't do this while you're driving.
STUCKEY: Don't do this - very good advice.
STUCKEY: And what you're going to be doing, then, is looking at the density of the taste buds on your tongue. The blue dye helps them show up better. You're going to be looking for the little bumps on your tongue. And if you take something that's the size of a notebook paper hole or a reinforcement hole and stick it on your tongue, you can actually count the number of taste buds that you have inside that hole. And that will give you a sense of where you fall on the tasting spectrum.
And generally, we find that there's about a quarter of people who fall in that hyper-taster range, about a quarter of people who fall at the lower end, where things are less intense to them. And then the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle.
FLATOW: Wow. A little home do-it-yourself kit to - and you're saying that your fiance, because he has a super - his super-tasting ability, even though he's eating just meat and potatoes, he's getting taste out of them that you might not have because you don't have his talent.
STUCKEY: Yes. And - his talent, exactly. He is probably not getting tastes that I don't, because, remember, there's only five basic tastes. But he is experiencing the intensity of them differently. And so, you know, that's really what I hope people get from the book. And this understanding is what I call taste empathy, so that you have a little bit more empathy for the people in your life - loved ones, for example - who are very picky eaters or people who can't tolerate certain foods, certain bitter foods or vegetables, for example. They're not trying to make your life more difficult. They're just reacting to their biology.
FLATOW: There you go. Good advice from Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good." Some experiments, some home - do-it-yourself thing you can do at home this evening right before dinner or when you're going out to a restaurant. Thank you, Barb. And good luck with your book.
STUCKEY: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.