Side DishesBefore the Presidential Symposium began, Linda Bartoshuk, APS President and chair of the symposium, engaged the audience in a sensory test called the Miracle Fruit Experiment. On each seat in the auditorium was a plate with two lemons, two strawberries, and a tablet of dried miracle fruit (the berry of the synsepalum dulcificum plant), which makes sour taste sweet when dissolved on the tongue. Participants first created a sensory profile by rating various phenomena — the loudness of a whisper, the brightness of a dimly lit room — then applied these ratings to the smell, taste, and flavor of the lemons and strawberries both before and after chewing the tablet. The data were then analyzed and presented the following day as a poster alongside data from a pilot study previously conducted by Bartoshuk. In Bartoshuk’s pilot study, subjects were classified as either “supertasters” or “others,” based on their initial ratings of the sourness of the lemon. Although all participants from the APS Convention were combined into a single group, the data mirrored the overall findings of the pilot study. Odor ratings for both strawberry and lemon were unchanged by miracle fruit administration. Sweetness ratings for both fruits were increased and sourness ratings were decreased after miracle fruit. Interestingly, participants rated the strawberry flavor higher after miracle fruit, but lemon flavor was unchanged. “Basically, what [the APS sample] showed, was that the strawberry flavor went up along with the sweetness,” Bartoshuk later reported. “That phenomenon has not been documented yet.”
How the Mind Perceives Taste
You might call the Presidential Symposium at the APS 22nd Annual Convention a three-course meal. As an appetizer, the audience ate lemons and strawberries as part of a test on flavor enhancement. For a main dish, an entrée of experts, from research psychologists to food critics, discussed why people are so attracted to spices. And for dessert, an award-winning chef prepared food for the whole crowd.
“Many of you have to be wondering, what does this have to do with psychology?” said program committee chair Tyler Lorig in an e-mail read aloud to the packed room by APS President and symposium chair Linda Bartoshuk, University of Florida. “The answer is … it is about understanding how flavor shapes what you do and who you are.”
A New Field of Gastro-Psychology:
The Tip of the Spiceberg
At the heart of the program was a discussion by APS Fellow Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania, about why so many people love to eat spices. Rozin’s research has shown that young children have a natural aversion to spicy food — even in spice-friendly places like Mexico — that disappears by around age 6 or 7.
Over time, people grow accustomed to eating hot peppers as a form of “benign masochism,” Rozin explained. In fact, about a third of the people in the world eat hot peppers on a daily basis, simply because they “love the burn.”
“What’s happened here we call a ‘hedonic reversal,’” Rozin said, “Something up here” — inside the brain — “has switched from a negative evaluation to a positive evaluation.”
The psychological mechanisms of this transformation, which takes place all over the world, are still dimly understood. For reasons that include exposure, conditioning, and social influence, he said, people enjoy eating something that brings them the most possible pain they can stand.
“We are the only species, as far as I know, that does anything to seek out innately negative events,” Rozin said. “We’re just at the beginning of understanding spices. We are just at the tip of the spiceberg.”
Also chipping away at this tip are researchers studying the benefits of spices on well-being. As Marianne Gillette of McCormick & Company explained, humans have a long history of connecting spices with health. In 1550 B.C., for instance, garlic was used as a remedy for hypertension and tumors, and in the 9th century, Charlemagne called spices and herbs the “friend of physicians.”
Somewhere along the way, people forgot about the medicinal purposes of spices and instead focused on their flavor. But with trends toward globalization, cultural interest in wellness, and improved dietary science, spices are once again being studied for their ability to enhance our health, Gillette said.
“Today we’re at the cusp of a major renaissance of interest in spices and herbs,” she said. “We are now … interested in spices again for their healing power.”
In several cases, these powers include substantial cognitive benefits. New studies, some funded in part by McCormick, have shown that rosemary and sage may improve age-related memory loss. A study in progress at Penn State is looking at the role spices might play in reducing mental stress and the heart conditions such stress can cause.
“We’ve been benefiting from spices for a while,” said Gillette, “but now we’ll know what we’re doing.”
Following up on Rozin’s brief mention of Ferran Adria, avant-garde chef at El Bulli, in Spain, writer Harold McGee discussed a growing movement toward redefining modern cuisine by using psychological approaches to cooking.
“What’s happening in modern cooking is that cooks are changing the ground rules in order to stimulate the mind, in order to stimulate emotion, and in order to stimulate thought,” said McGee, who writes the Curious Cook column for the New York Times.
McGee described several efforts being dreamed up in kitchens around the world. Wylie Dufresne of WD-50, in Manhattan, creates dishes with an element of humor and surprise; his dish “Sunny-Side Up,” for instance, looks like a fried egg, but the white is actually coconut milk and the yolk a tomato. Jose Andres, who cooks in Washington, DC, presents patrons with jellies of flavors that appear in their wine — a mental calisthenics for wine appreciation. Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, in England, is so interested in the psychology of perception that he consults with Charles Spence, a professor at Oxford who studies sensory psychology.
“It seems to me that it’s not going to be that much longer, given this collaboration of interests, before there will be a field of gastro-psychology,” McGee concluded.
The symposium’s capstone speakers were Ana Sortun, owner of Oleana restaurant, in Boston, and Mimi Sheraton, a former New York Times food critic. Sortun and Sheraton explained how and why certain combinations of spices create unimagined sensations.
Sortun, who has appeared on the television show Top Chef Masters, emphasizes Eastern Mediterranean spices in her cuisine, many discovered on a voyage to Turkey. These range from dried rose petals, which can be whipped into jam, to allspice, which she often sprinkles on tomatoes. As opposed to the warm, complex tastes described by Sortun, Sheraton talked about cool, fresh flavors — dill, caraway, and cardamom — primarily found in Scandinavian food.
After Sortun and Sheraton finished their discussions, the audience then streamed into an adjacent dining room to find the creations fresh in their minds now fresh on their plates at a reception for all attendees.
Presidential Symposium SpeakersLinda Bartoshuk, a Presidential Endowed Professor of Community Dentistry and Behavioral Science at the University of Florida, is an internationally known researcher specializing in the chemical senses of taste and smell. Her interests include genetic variation in taste perceptions, oral pain, and taste disorders. Prior to accepting a position at the University of Florida, she was a professor at Yale University and received her PhD from Brown University. Bartoshuk is Immediate Past President of APS as well as a Fellow and Charter Member. Marianne Gillette is the current the Vice President of Technical Competencies and Platforms for McCormick & Company, Inc. Her areas of interest include sensory science, herbs and spices, flavor trends, and product development. Gillette is also President of the Institute of Food Technologists and Past President of the Food Update Foundation. She has a MS and a BS in Nutrition Science from the University of California, Davis, and a MBA from the University of Baltimore. Harold McGee is an award-winning author who writes about the chemistry, technique, and history of food and cooking. Along with his many books, he writes a regular column for the New York Times, The Curious Cook, and teaches the Harold McGee Lecture Series at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. He received a BS in Literature from California Institute of Technology and a PhD from Yale University. Paul Rozin is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Ethnopolitical Conflict. His current research focuses on the psychological, cultural, and biological determinants of human food choice, including the acquisition of likes and dislikes for foods, ambivalence to animal foods, and lay conception of risk of infection and toxic effects of foods. Rozin earned a BA from the University of Chicago and doctoral degrees in biology and psychology from Harvard University. Mimi Sheraton graduated from the New York University School of Commerce and the New York School of Interior Design. While traveling as a home furnishings editor for Seventeen magazine, Sheraton explored and researched food on her own, eventually becoming a food editor. Since then she has been a veteran food critic for the New York Times, Time, Vanity Fair, Food & Wine, Condé Nast Traveler and many others. Seattle-born Ana Sortun graduated from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine de Paris before opening Moncef Medeb’s Aigo Bistro in Concord, Massachusetts. In 2001, Sortun opened Oleana, her Mediterranean-inspired restaurant, receiving much praise. She was awarded the Best Chef: Northeast honor by the James Beard Foundation in 2005 and published a best-selling cookbook SPICE: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean in 2006. Sortun was a contestant on Season Two of Top Chef Masters on Bravo.
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