Food and Taste

by Michael Sones

For most of the history of the Western world, and for much of the developing world today, food supplies have been precarious. Harvest failure, caused by weather, insect pests, or war could bring famine. Hunger is one of the most powerful natural drives and it is only when we are certain we will get enough to satisfy that hunger then taste, the preference of one food over another, becomes important. Our lips and tongue are highly sensitive to stimulation. That our taste buds respond pleasurably to certain kinds of foods containing sugar, salt, and fats is the product of millions of years of evolutionary adaptation. So is the fact that our body has a tendency to store fat. If fat was stored in times of plenty it was available as a reserve in times of scarcity when game and other food was hard to find. The tendency of the body to store fat once had considerable survival value even though now in our times, in many developed societies, many people wish it did not work quite so well. Obesity is now a serious public health problem.

During the evolutionary development of modern human physiology, over countless millennia, our bodies evolved and adapted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and hunter-gatherer diets. In our sedentary lifestyle with our fat and sugar rich diets we really are fish out of water. Our preferential tastes for fats and sugars evolved in natural environments in which they were relatively scarce. There are few fat hunter-gatherers. Their active lifestyle keeps them fit.

Babies have an innate, evolutionary developed and natural preference for sweet tastes. Breast milk is sweet. A liking for sour and spicy tastes is acquired.Adults have about 10,000 taste buds which are divided into the four groups of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. In comparison, rabbits have 17,000, parrots 400, and cows 25,000. We taste sweet things on the taste buds at the tip of the tongue while sour things are experienced at the sides. Bitter things are tasted at the back of the mouth as if intended to give a last warning just before it disappears down the hatch and while there is still time to gag. Salty things are tasted on the surface of the tongue especially at the front. (Some butterflies, in contrast, taste things through taste organs located in their feet which might be all right for an insect which can fly from one flower to another but sane readers of this article will be glad they don’t taste things in a similar way).

Our taste buds wear out every seven to ten days and are regularly replaced until we become middle-aged when this process becomes less frequent. Once we take a mouthful of food it begins to be dissolved in our saliva. Our sense of smell also aids and enriches our sense of taste and people with colds often complain about a diminished sense of taste. Some foods are known to stimulate biochemical changes which may enhance or improve our moods. For example, eating sweets leads to the release of endorphins which reduces stress.Some foods can be harmful if eaten to excess. Too much salt, as is well known, can be harmful. If you are ever lost in the Arctic and stumble across a dead polar bear don’t eat the liver because it contains so much vitamin A it is poisonous. On the other hand, if you are lost in the Arctic and stumble across a live polar bear you probably won’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from. (They can be violently aggressive towards humans and have been known to stalk and kill them. Between 1970-1985 four people were killed and fifteen injured by polar bears in Canada. All four deaths were due to predation by the polar bear.)

Some people take great risks with their food. The Japanese eat fugu, the white fish of the puffer fish which if not properly prepared by the chef kills the diner because its ovaries, skin, liver, and intestines contain tetrodotoxin which is a highly lethal poison and can cause death in approximately 60% of people who eat it. It has been eaten for thousands of years by the Chinese. Every year, approximately 50 diners die (1996 figures).The chefs who prepare the delicacy must be specially licensed. [A cautionary note: Californian salamanders and eastern newts also contain lethal quantities of tetrodotoxin so be careful if you decide on a salamander barbecue.]

Contemporary Western culture seems to periodically have “food scares” when food which looks good to eat is suspected of containing some kind of pathogen. Prions hide unsuspecting in beef ready, in time, to cause human variant BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jacobs disease in the unlucky. This is a disease which is similar to kuru which affected the South Fore peoples of Papua New Guinea who practiced mortuary cannibalism (eating the bodies of the dead). It has been worried that salmonella, a bacteria that can cause serious food poisoning, is prevalent in battery farmed chickens and eggs. Dioxin is poisoning the fish (and then us). We are continually being told that a lot of what we eat is bad for us and then the advice on this can shift. There is a movement to organic foods and then warnings about natural toxins.

PUFFER FISH

Many children go through a phase when they suffer from what could be called ‘contamination anxieties.’ That is, they have anxieties that something is bad in the food. The central anxiety, as with food in our society these days, seems to be that things on the inside are not what they appear to be on the outside. It looks good to eat but it is not. The anxiety is about being deceived and harmed by that to which one is attracted. This is one of the central anxieties in human psychology and an understanding of it is essential to understanding the psychology of beauty. Fugu Anyone?

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