The Science of the Yuk and the Yum of Things

John McQuaid blends history, scientific research, cultural studies, and personal anecdotes to create a lively and engaging history of taste.

Why are most tomatoes bland? What causes the ‘yuck’ face? Will we still be able to order a good Sauvignon Blanc in 2050?

These are the types of questions John McQuaid tackles in Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat.

McQuaid goes back millions of years, to a time when eating meant simply absorbing nutrients rather than consuming an actual meal. When was the first meal and perhaps more importantly, what did it taste like? It’s almost impossible to imagine, but most likely this “meal” was consumed by a scarab-like creature approximately 480 million years ago. Also likely: the main course was “wormlike”.

The first chapter quickly moves through years’ worth of eating—detailing fossil finds that provide clues to what eating was like millions of years ago and showing how monkeys searched out the most colorful fruit in the jungle along with what these things mean to us today. Later chapters look at the DNA of taste, specific tastes such as bitter and sweet (and sweeteners), and scientific experiments related to taste. McQuaid examines the histories of certain foods, including potato chips and fermented beverages, and notes that tools and tricks—from packaging to playing with memory—were (and most likely still are) often used to convince the American public to favor certain flavors.

McQuaid blends history, scientific research, cultural studies, and personal anecdotes to create a lively and engaging history of taste that also provides glimpses into the future.

Taste can be a humorous thing, and it’s hard not to chuckle over the retelling of then President H.W. Bush’s confession that he didn’t like broccoli and the ensuing reactions from the press and broccoli farmers. It’s equally hard not to be charmed by McQuaid’s cheese-loving daughter (evidently her avatar is a chunk of Swiss cheese) and their visit to a cheese making shop.

Other sections, such as those on on marketing and taste, simply have interesting stories to tell. McQuaid reveals how Maxwell House coffee only gained market share after it classified coffees into weak, medium, and strong categories. Prego only rivaled Ragu after it developed an extra-chunky sauce. Some passages might make readers head to their own kitchens and refrigerators, to confirm things such as: “A light plastic spoon makes yogurt seem denser and more expensive than a heavier one. A blue spoon makes pink yogurt taste saltier. A white spoon improves white yogurt, but makes pink yogurt taste worse.”

Then there are the part of the book that might cause “yuck face”. McQuaid thoroughly explains the concept of the yuck face in chapter six: “Gusto and Disgust”. First the technical explanation: “Distaste and the ‘yuck’ face are the products of an ancient circuit of firing neurons, blood flow, and neurotransmitter activity in the brain that includes the insula and orbitofrontal cortex”. More simply put: it’s the face we make when something disgusts us or when we would like to spit something out. What disgusts humans changes not only over time, but as we age: adults are much more likely to be disgusted than children.

Not surprisingly, considering McQuaid presents a very thorough look at taste and that not all tastes are pleasant, there are sections of the book that may just be a little disgusting. Some in the traditional sense of disgust—such as the experiments involving rats.

Another thing that perhaps should conjure up the yuck face? What Americans have done to tomatoes. According to McQuaid, many foods, including tomatoes “are still engineered for blandness”. All the technical advancements we’ve made have still not allowed us to develop tomatoes that are flavorful and can still hold up to the rigors of packing and shipping.

Taste is also not universal. As previously mentioned, taste changes not only over time but as children grow into adults (one of my favorite lines in the book is “Children have strange tastes because they are bizarre creatures”). Taste also varies from region to region. For example, American tastes might be considered heavy compared to the Japanese: “our [American] palates are destroyed. If I was to serve you a very delicate broth with some lemongrass and a piece of raw bonito in it in America, you’d say ‘Where is the Tabasco or A.1. sauce?’ Because you cannot taste anything. But if you were living in Japan, you’d think this was the most flavorful thing that you’ve ever experienced.”

Much of the book looks at the past, but McQuaid does occasionally look to the future. He notes that rising temperatures in the French wine country may make it impossible to grow Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Bordeaux. But while some food products may no longer be available, others will develop. Insect-based foods that might have once caused the yuck face were deemed “rather tasty” at a symposium in Copenhagen in 2011, and McQuaid concludes that “Bug cuisine is a promising frontier.”

For those that don’t find bug cuisine appetizing, let’s end with a happier thought. According to McQuaid, the human brain is programmed to always allow people to have room for dessert.

RATING 8 / 10