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The Surprising Science Behind Your Favorite Flavors

Did our sense of taste make us human? From evolution to culture, a new book explores the science and perception of flavor.

We human beings have been tasting things for a long time.  Devouring things.  Rejecting things.  Refining our sense of taste.  Overwhelming our sense of taste.  Playing with flavors.  And still we have our own favorites.  What I find delicious you may find disgusting, and vice versa.  And then a shared, beloved flavor sends us soaring.  John McQuaid has been looking at why we love what we love when it comes to taste, flavor.  Looking at evolution, culture, chemistry, and what we love to eat.  To savor.  This hour On Point: we’re thinking about what’s tasty to you, and why.

— Tom Ashbrook


John McQuaid, writer and reporter. Author of the new book, “Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat.” Also co-author of “Path of Destruction.” (@johnmcquaid)

From Tom’s Reading List

Scientific American: How the Sense of Taste Has Shaped Who We Are— “I have two kids, a boy and a girl born two years apart – now teens – and a few years ago, I became fascinated with how their tastes and preferences in food differed. My son liked extremes, especially super-hot chili peppers and whole lemons and limes. My daughter hated that stuff. She preferred bland comfort foods such as mashed potatoes, pasta, cheese and rice. White foods. Both kids were also picky eaters. They liked what they liked, and it didn’t overlap (except for pizza). Speaking as a parent, this was maddening.”

NPR Weekend Edition: How Flavor Helped Make Us Human— “Our current cultural obsession with food is undeniable. But, while the advent of the foodie may be a 21st century phenomenon, from an evolutionary standpoint, flavor has long helped define who we are as a species, a new book argues. In Tasty: the Art and Science of What We Eat, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid offers a broad and deep exploration of the human relationship to flavor.”

Slate: The Science of Mmm — “When we think of a flavor, what comes to mind is usually the distinctive qualities that separate it from other flavors: the singular “coffeeness” of coffee. That is, a mix of tastes, aromas, mouthfeel, and temperature. But that’s really only half the equation. The other is how that coffee makes you feel. You sip it not just to fill your stomach, or even to wake up, but to get a little pleasure and satisfaction. Without that, drinking it would be a very dull experience indeed, a flat collage of sensations. Pleasure is what animates eating and drinking and makes them truly gratifying.”

Read An Excerpt Of “Tasty” By John McQuaid

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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