When Gina Mullin lost her sense of taste after a bout with cancer, she ordered takeout from her favorite joints, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. But when she got home, the food that had once been the stuff of dreams for the 49-year-old tasted gross.
“I don’t cry much,” she tells National Geographic. “I don’t even think I cried when I was diagnosed, but I remember crying that day.”
You don’t have to be a foodie to understand how important taste is. But what if you lost your ability to taste? How does eating — and your life — change? Not being able to taste the dripping cheddar from a grilled-cheese sandwich or the creaminess of a just-perfect avocado in guacamole is integral to not only general life happiness but also to our diets. As much as 15 percent of the population is unable to taste, according to the National Institute of Health, which is probably connected with an aging population and the rise of patients afflicted with conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, brain injuries, and cancer.
For some of these patients, the loss of taste is actually a loss of smell. If you remember pinching your nose shut to force down fish oil or something equally unpleasant when you were growing up, you were performing a very basic neurological hide-and-seek: clamming up the nasal cavities to try to mask the taste.
But taste is also associated with sound. Charles Spence is a world-renowned expert in how auditory signals make foods seem tastier — or not. His most notable paper — “The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips,” which showed how crunchier chips were considered tastier by test subjects — might sound like a joke, but corporations and health organizations are taking notice. Making food tastier means more bucks, after all.
But the science of how our brains understand taste and flavor remains a bit of a mystery. While the myth of tongues having specific areas of taste — sweet at the tip, salty on the sides, bitter near the end at the entrance to the throat — has been proven false, we do know that our sense of taste is a complex algorithm of desire, satisfaction (or lack thereof), maturity, and, importantly, nostalgia. Besides that, the science of taste is still sort of a shot in the dark: Odor receptors were identified in the brain in 1991, which earned their discoverers, Richard Axel and Linda Buck, a Nobel in 2004. All pretty recent stuff.
Earlier this month, a group of neurogastronomists — neuroscientists who study how our brains and tongues work together to create a flavor profile — met in Lexington, Kentucky, at the first-ever meeting of the International Society of Neurogastonomy, The Wall Street Journal reported. At the conference, one of the many questions scientists tackled was how to make food palatable for patients who had lost their sense of taste. The classic shortcut was to dump a bunch of spices or spike up the heat with peppers to make a stronger flavor profile. But the neuroscientists here were intrigued by changing how our brains perceive food — getting to the cellular level and messing with how the brain understands taste to make eating a very different experience for those afflicted with taste-loss disorders or dietary issues.
“We could potentially revolutionize the flavoring of foods,” Tim McClintock, a physiology professor at the University of Kentucky, told WSJ. “Some people might find it creepy,” but it could be the difference between a devastating relationship with food and a huge life boost that would make people like Mullin enjoy their meals instead of gag.
And it goes beyond making food palatable for people who are suffering from a disease. Consider people who are obese or anorexic: What if the brain could be reprogrammed to make nutritious foods enticing? What if vegetables could be made to taste like dessert for picky 3-year-olds subsisting on a diet of chicken nuggets? What if hospital food weren’t so yuck-inducing?
If it sounds futuristic and a little out there, that’s because it still is — at least for now. Neurogastronomy is still in its infant stages, having been invented by Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd just a few years ago. And while there have been some remarkable advances in the science of taste — odor imaging in the brain was one of the hottest topics at the conference — we’re still far from understanding how our brains and tongues talk to each other when we taste.