Flavor. It’s everything when you’re trying to get people to give up favorite foods for the sake of their health. If the Suppers experience doesn’t rival the pleasure people get from artificially delicious processed foods that are keeping them sick, fat, depressed or addicted, we won’t be able to help them make the transition from how they eat now to how they need to eat to become well.
This article on flavor is a blend of observations at Suppers meetings, my experience with children in school gardens, and readings on the brain pathways of addiction and the food manufacturing practices related to flavor and addiction. The lesson learned in terms of Suppers program design is that the food at Suppers and the meetings themselves must deliver pleasure. Healthy food has to be absolutely delicious or people will not be able to sustain healthy behavior changes over time. Moreover, people who feel hooked on processed foods need a lengthy but not predictable period of adjustment and social support to carry them while their palates change in favor of healthy choices.
There are many different sources of pleasure and satisfaction: from food to job satisfaction to sex to communing with Nature to relationships to spiritual connection and puppies. What they have in common is that we experience them all on the terrain of a physical body, including especially a brain. One of the fastest ways to manipulate feelings of pleasure and satisfaction is by introducing food, drink and substances into our bodies. And the industries that sell products to change how we feel (processed food, soft drinks, alcohol, licit and illicit drugs) are heavily invested in manipulating our brains in their favor. Therefore, Suppers maximizes opportunities to support pleasure and satisfaction in a great variety of natural ways to help people feel good and establish better habits.
Perhaps one day scientists and social scientists will be able to explain all this, but for now let’s put forth some hunches based on observations of people at Suppers.
- The need and longing to feel nourished is about more than food, but when other things in life leave us hungering in some way, food is likely to be used as a substitute.
- Food gives pleasure. We are designed to enjoy things that are necessary for survival. If your taste buds have been hijacked by food processers, you can change your palate over time so that you increasingly favor the whole fresh food and get off the hook of artificially stimulating and flavorful processed food.
- How it’s presented matters. A good meal will be colorful and varied and eaten from plates with real cutlery in a relaxed, safe setting.
- Knowing that Suppers has an institutional insistence on non-judgment and an imperative to make the family table an enjoyable experience increases the pleasure in eating the food.
- Fragrant smells and aromatic herbs and spices delight the brain with anticipation and excite the palate, though individuals vary greatly in their interest in and tolerance for strong flavor.
- What we talk about matters. As long as we don’t invite indigestion, Suppers should provide delicious fodder for the seeking mind.
- We want to offer the most delicious food we can make that spans the distance between satisfying normal hunger to feeling like a treat without spilling over into triggers, the foods that are too delicious for your own good.
- Children adapt more quickly to healthy new foods than adults give them credit for. We see it repeatedly. But certain rules of parenting apply, as described in the readings on nutritional harm reduction.
Individual Ability to Taste
Scientists have been studying individual variations in the ability to taste for nearly a century. The range of individual variation is so enormous that it requires the honoring of non-judgment about what other people like because we are all prisoners of our own experience. We can’t imagine what another person is tasting. Here are the basics:
“Super tasters,” a term coined in the 1990s, are equipped with more capacity to taste and are likely to perceive things like coffee and leafy greens as too bitter to enjoy. Sweets may be intolerably creamy or sweet and chili peppers too hot to abide. People who fall into this category may represent about 25% of the population, with women more likely to be super tasters than men. In practical terms, if healthy greens are unpalatable to super tasters, they can improve the desirability of these foods by combining them with taste-mitigating foods, like banana with kale to make a smoothie.
“Non tasters” are at the other extreme. They have fewer structures in their tongues for flavor perception and will not pick up these unpleasant tastes. These represent another 25% of the population.
Medium tasters represent the largest group, about half of the population.
If a child (or spouse!) tells you the vegetables taste awful, or bitter, he may be a “super taster.” Believe him. People who for genetic reasons perceive bitterness more keenly are likely to perceive vegetables as bitter, particularly if eaten raw. Cook them.
Flavor: What’s the Point?
Long before humans created science and a few of us created Suppers, nature gifted us with a wildly sophisticated palate for discerning information about our environment via taste. Let’s consider the role of flavor in the evolutionary context in which we understand flavor at Suppers. It is a fundamental assumption of the Suppers programs that how you feel is data. In fact, we’ve made that concept into our first slogan. So merging our evolutionary perspective on flavor with our prime assumption that the body is a data source means we view the human capacity to taste as a life and death adaptation with big implications for health and healing.
Take Home Message #1: The original purpose of flavor and the ability to taste are driven by evolution to give animals important data about the environment, the food supply and how to respond.
What Determines the Flavor of Things?
The perception of flavor is a complex relationship among:
- The perceiver (the person tasting) and his individual biological details
- The inherent flavor of the food
- The environmental influences that alter taste perception AND change the taste of the food itself
- The species of plant or animal
- The nutritional and therapeutic properties of natural foods and our own programming to seek out and enjoy the foods we need at the time
- The nature of the soil or sea, supporting the food
- Environmental conditions like the amount of sunlight, temperature and water
- The number and quality of taste buds on individual tongues
- The history and food associations of the eater
- Addiction and other brain interactions that make us enjoy that to which we are addicted
- Damage from illness or toxic load
- Capacity to smell
- Emotional and psychological factors that muddy the perception of taste versus pleasure (also usually related to addictive tendencies)
- Brain health as the perception of taste is mediated by the brain using the flavor data for important cues about the environment
Flavors and Their Balancing Flavors
Chef Allie says a taste or flavor sensation is a neurological interpretation of a food that is perceived through the sense of smell and contact with taste buds on the tongue. Following are the basic tastes and their balancing tastes:
Salt: brings out the natural flavor of the dish. If you taste something and your response is “bland,” try a little salt. Use high quality rock or sea salts or include sea vegetables like kelp for flavoring. Salt’s flavor balancing friend is…
Sour: Acid foods brighten a dish. Think of lemon juice or vinegar. It also levels out salt. So if you over-salted your food, you can balance it out with a little citrus juice or vinegar. It works in reverse too; if the dish is too acid, add a little salt. The zing of an acid food is best added toward the end of cooking since it dissipates during cooking.
Sweet: You are designed to seek sweetness, the flavor tells you the fruit is ripe and safe to eat and will provide a source of much-needed quick energy. The industrial food processers cash in on your evolutionary love of sweetness when they refine and concentrate sugars in soft drinks, sweet treats and in fact most processed foods. Sweetness tames spiciness. Sweetness balances with…
Bitter: The perception of bitterness is believed to be an adaptive response to identify foods that may be toxic. Obviously not all bitter foods are toxic and bitterness is an important flavor sensation whose sharpness or pungence is balanced deliciously with sweetness (think of chocolate). The perception of bitterness is often more pronounced in raw as opposed to cooked vegetables.
Umami: The fifth basic flavor sensation is umami, which is characteristic of fish, meat, mushrooms and some vegetables. It may be thought of as a background flavor, the meaty foundation or starting point for the dish. The industry calls this flavor “brothy”.
Fat: carries the flavor of everything else, helps flavors blend and spreads it flavors across the tongue. We are designed to seek it out, in part because over 60% of the dry weight of the human brain is fat and we must eat fat to build brain.
Chef Allie suggests that when you are balancing a dish, you be sure to “listen” closely to what the food is trying to say to you. Creating a harmonious balance of flavors is not that difficult if you connect with the food and use the simple balancing tips to adjust flavor. This means tasting as you go.
The Importance of Flavor at Suppers
The human experience of flavor has changed over time as we have moved away from an intimate relationship with Nature in which trusting our senses is vitally important to separation from Nature and dependence on experts outside our bodies. At Suppers, we seek to take back at least some of the lost power by helping people:
- Develop a palate for whole, real food, the kind that makes you well
- Lose the palate for flavors crafted by food manufacturers to make you eat more because of how it lights up the pleasure centers of your brain
- Develop the habit of checking in with your body regularly to get data
This usually involves a combination of learning to cook, re-learning how to taste, and a period of detoxing because if your taste buds are altered by the modern western diet, you will need to be able to address the question: Does this taste good or do I like the taste because of how this changes how I feel?
We are programmed by evolutionary forces to take great pleasure in ingesting the things that are necessary for survival and vibrant health. The pressure to evolve mechanisms of enjoyment mounted as the necessary elements were scarce in supply. Salt, fat and sugar or starch spring to mind. If combinations of salt, fat and sugar or starch (candy, cookies, pizza) delight you, it’s data! Especially if you consume them when you don’t want to or know it would be better if you didn’t.
If your sense is that you need to eat differently to be well, good flavor is your ally in the process. But there’s a snag. It takes a while to unhook your palate and personal chemistry from the grip of flavor prison. “Flavor prison” is the grip that highly processed foods have on us because they artificially stimulate pleasure in the brain like addictive substances do. That’s why Suppers offers ongoing meetings with lots of social support and cooking opportunities, while you get off the hook.
Take Home Message # 2: Healing is a social experience.
It can take months (sorry, for some, years) to traverse the distance from the love of “hyper-palatable” combinations of salt, fat, and sugar to urgent delight in vegetables. That requires lots of social support and new relationships with people who also want to live in a healthier way. Which bring us to the promise of Suppers:
Take Home Message #3: Suppers is here to support you without judging your speed or pathway to a healthy lifestyle while you transform your palate. We call this transformation a “logical miracle.” You will know you’re experiencing it when you start longing for our salads.
Good and Bad Manipulations of Flavor
There are good and bad manipulations of flavor which – let us recall – we are wired to perceive to increase chances of survival. A good manipulation is called cooking (or food preparation, if you’re a raw vegan!) Cooking that manipulates the palate toward a taste for fresh, natural, non-addicting foods is positive.
Bad manipulations of flavor are ones that move the palate in the direction of pathology: processed, addictive foods. In general, if food manufacturers have refined or altered how foods taste in ways that make you want to eat them instead of whole fresh food, it’s a bad manipulation. To be practical, let’s acknowledge that most people are not going to give up all of the foods they find delicious. But bringing more consciousness to eating will help you practice what we call “nutritional harm reduction.” Nutritional harm reduction allows us to make changes over time in a manageable, non-judgmental way.
Treats versus Triggers
Suppers is not an ogre that orders you how to eat. We do recognize that some people are just fine eating reasonable amounts of chocolate, coffee or brie. What we ask our members to face is the distinction between a treat and a trigger.
Take Home Message #4: A treat is a food you can enjoy without its consumption leading to unwanted behaviors or eating. A trigger is a food that does lead to unwanted eating or behaviors.
Your perception of how good something tastes may be strongly influenced by that food’s relationship with your brain. If the relationship is addictive in nature, your taste buds may confuse deliciousness with the pleasure or relief of mood and energy manipulation. Do pizza or chocolate lift your mood? Do soft drinks give you an energy boost? Do you crash a while after you have them? That’s data!
Emotional stress, fatigue, alcohol and drug dependency, and painful memories drive the desire for foods that change your chemistry, usually involving some combination of fats, sugars, salt and caffeine or alcohol. How can you tell if your taste buds have a perverse preference for these foods? You will feel the connection between desire for the food and the rapidity with which you experience relief or glee.
Good ingredients will produce deliciousness all on their own, giving pleasure and satisfying normal hunger.
Chef Allie’s Tips for Flavoring When you Saute
- Start with alliums, onion, scallion, shallot, etc. Add sea salt to bring out the moisture. And don’t ever sauté garlic for longer than 30 seconds on high heat.
- Add spices when cooking mostly in fat at the beginning of cooking, but add herbs later, when the wet ingredients are in. Contact with fat deepens the effect of spices (think of curries, the spices go in at the beginning).
- When you add ingredients to your pot, like carrots, celery, or squash, add a pinch of salt each time, again to sweat out the moisture and enhance the flavor. When vegetables brown nicely, their natural sugars are being drawn out and they caramelize over the heat.
- Always deglaze the pan to capture the flavor sticking to the pot. Use stock or wine and massage the browned bits to develop a nice pan sauce.
- Let the last step be tasting and asking yourself if the balance is right and then adjust with citrus or vinegar, salt, a sweet note like honey and herbs. And a little fat binds the flavors together.
You are designed to feel well. You are designed to heal constantly and naturally, given the right building blocks. You are designed to take pleasure in the things that are good for you and to develop aversions to the things that are bad for you.
You can put the magic of flavor to work you for. Join us for Suppers. And experience the logical miracle.
Interact with the Material
Make flavor balancing an activity at a Suppers meeting or at home. Any good cook will know how to “taste the way” to a well balanced salad dressing or finish a pot of soup.
Have a group discussion identifying personal treats and triggers. Do an experiment and journal the experience to identify which foods give pleasure without leading to unwanted consumption or other unwanted behaviors and which do.
If you suspect you are a super taster and want confirmation, you can inspect your tongue. Easy directions for counting the “fungiform papillae” that house taste buds on the tongue are available on the internet, google “counting fungiform papillae.”
Practice sautéing using pinches of salt as you introduce each vegetable. Make the same dish adding all the salt at the end. Notice differences in the flavor and the total amount of salt used.
If you’re a parent, do flavor experiments with the children. For example, cut up broccoli stem, leaves and florets. Sample each slowly and notice which part of the broccoli is sweetest. (The answer is almost always the stem!)
Try pairing sour things with sweet things, or bitter things with sweet things to notice how the dance of flavors make delicious combinations. Try lemon and honey to make lemonade. Try cacao powder and raisins to make a healthier chocolate treat.
Have a discussion about how you acquired a taste for things you did not originally enjoy.