Obesity Doesn’t Taste Like Much

Umami water.

Sounds like some sort of eel-based sushi distilled into a new type of water (or dare I say alcohol?) And yes, it exists.

This past Tuesday I had the fortune of listening to the White House pastry chef, Bill Yosses. I decided that if I ever made it to being First Wife of some president (hey I’m at Harvard, maybe it’ll happen) I am immediately going to have daily cooking lessons with all the White House chefs.

So besides playing with glass blowers and candy gel (both 100% applicable to my life), I got to try this legendary water. Everyone was given two cups. He asked us to taste the first one and we proceeded to swirl and swish the waves in our mouths. Then he asked us to do the same and contemplate the difference of the second. Nearly everyone liked the first. My friend Marissa commented that the second tasted bitter. She was partially right in that there was a difference in taste in the second, but in actual fact the key difference was umami.

The injection of umami taste molecules into the second water created subtle, fuzzy sensations on my tongue and I noticed my mouth beginning to salivate. It was an extremely cool experience but I’m pretty sure umami (unagi?) water isn’t going to go big anytime soon.

Maybe Michael Jordan’s secret water stuff might.

Umami is the taste response to salts of glutamic acid – like the infamous MSG. Processed meats and cheeses have these savory components as well. The binding of these amino acids to G-coupled protein receptors initiates a “cascade” signaling process in the tongue and sends signals to the brain. Think of one person telling another about your secret crush, and then how the secret spreads like wildfire – exponentially increasing to the point that your secret crush isn’t so much a secret anymore (#fifthgradeangst).

Although my focus for my imaginary and maybe way-way-way in the future documentary is smell, taste is equally as interesting to me because it is a physical sensation on the tongue that defines the larger makeup of flavor – almost like stretching vs. working vs. tweaking vs. pulling vs. lactic-aciding (I made that up, yup) a muscle. But with the tongue, it feels sour vs. sweet vs. bitter vs. salty vs. umami. Then there are the “mouthfeels” produced by other chemicals too – like fats and tannins of wine. Contrary to popular belief, the taste sensations are not localized to one particular area, so swishing whatever you’re eating around your tongue (without swallowing it!) has a huge effect.

Random doodling:

Click here for a brief intro to tastes and how they scientifically function.

A fascinating German study came out that found that obese kids have highly insensitive taste buds compared to their slimmer companions: “especially [with regards to ] salty, bitter and umami. They also struggled to detect the difference between salty and sour, and between salty and umami.”

The main question at hand is whether or not the lack of tasting ability makes a child more prone to becoming obese, or if the lack of ability stems from the child’s obesity and epigenetics. I believe it could actually be deeper than both suggestions – perhaps the emotional dependency on food that many obese children develop is coupled with tasting ability on a more subconscious level in the brain. I wonder if the “numbing” emotional effect food gives is metaphorized in the tongue itself.

On the note of emotional frequencies and influences on taste – one researcher thinks there potentially can be a “hormonal fingerprint” that will determine tasting ability in the present moment.

“For example, the hormone leptin is associated with hunger, fat storage and the ability to taste sweet things. Obese people may be less sensitive to its daily cycles. Also, if the level of insulin circulating in the blood stream remains consistently elevated for long periods of time, as it does in many obese people, it could weaken the cells’ receptors to the hormone, which in turn could mute taste sensitivity.”

One last suggestion is that obese kids “habituate” to tastes – almost like drug-addiction and threshold effects.

Regardless of what the true cause is – this study clearly points to the healthy mechanism of mindful eating as a means to cope with obesity. The meditation on taste forces the consumer to cultivate an awareness of their taste sensations, and like anything in life, this can be trained and improved. So rather than seeing this whole taste bud article as a limiting factor from birth, it’s actually an encouraging piece of information.

Random thoughts – what does tongue scraping have to do with all of this?

Daily Nutrition Facts

Made coffee-almond ice cream in Science of Cooking lab this week:

What I learned? Besides the great flavor combo, that salt lowers the freezing point of ice. Boom. Makin the ice cream.

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Filed under adventures, food, health, science

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