An Introduction to the Science of Taste with Adam Brumberg
Healthier and more conscious food choices elicit change in overall health. Studies show that the most pervasive illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, can be positively influenced by a better diet (1). The modifiable determinants of chronic disease are just that: Modifiable.
Researcher Adam Brumberg is the Deputy Director of the Cornell Institute for Behavioral Economics and Consumer Choice. Brumberg along with his colleagues are experts in food psychology, researching how and why we make the food choices that we do.
According to their research, our dietary choices are largely affected by convenience and stress levels. Our sense of taste is easily manipulated by context and bias. However, the more we are aware of these physiological and situational influences, the more we can use them to our advantage.
By understanding the subconscious factors influencing our taste buds we can make more purposeful and conscious dietary choices. This deeper understanding presents an opportunity for us to tune into our environment, our context, and enable us to pinpoint unconscious food choice triggers. How would a food psychology expert approach the opportunity to change our tastes?
As Deputy Director of the Cornell Institute for Behavioral Economics and Consumer Choice, Brumberg spoke to Nature X Design about the ways in which we can influence our sense of taste to make better choices for ourselves.
“Humans make on average 200 food-related decisions per day” (2). Improving those decisions begins with understanding taste itself.
Factors that Influence Taste and Food Choice:
According to Brumberg, “taste is more than what happens in your mouth.” Our food preferences and desires are founded on much more than the five commonly cited physical attributes of taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. It turns out that our other senses and perceptions play an important role.
The majority of what you’re tasting is the result of aroma.
Our sense of taste is intrinsically connected to our sense of smell. According to Brumberg, the average person can distinguish somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 different scents, and these distinguishable aromas are the building blocks of what we taste.
Have you ever wondered why connoisseurs slurp their wine? According to Brumberg it is because “through active aerating and chewing, all aromatic components of a flavor get released.” The greater the release of flavor, the greater the understanding, which results in the greater pleasure (or displeasure) of the wine.
Our perceptions of taste are not only affected by our other senses but are also altered by context.
I can change your perception of what something tastes like by the way it’s described or the context it’s served in.
– Adam Brumberg
Brumberg tells us, “if you give someone green milk, they’ll tell you it’s matcha or mint-flavored.” He continued: “If a renowned sommelier recommends a wine, the expectation is that it will taste good. Price is also an indicator, as well as what a reference group thinks.” As Brumberg states, “we don’t always necessarily trust our own taste, but we use other cues to help inform us as to what things taste like.”
Beyond aroma, the final taste in your mouth is the context in which you’re consuming your food, your personal history with that food, or your cultural associations with that food.
– Adam Brumberg
Additionally, stress, habit, and convenience modify our food choices. Results from a study conducted by Brumberg and his colleagues at Cornell show that our food choices are made worse by stress (2). The same goes for convenience: “If you pack a lunch the night before, you’re going to put together something that’s a lot more healthful than if you are doing it as you’re running out of the house in the morning,” Brumberg says (2).
Using the things that we know we can change, we can create a new environment to help support the goal [of healthy eating].
– Adam Brumberg
According to Brumberg, “if you walk down the street and you stopped 100 people, 99 of them would say they would like to eat better overall. But we don’t necessarily always follow through on that. Most of us have a relationship with food that extends beyond biological needs. This complicates making dietary adjustments for health outcomes.
With this in mind, how do we improve our diet? It is imperative to understand the factors that influence taste and food choices to evoke this behavior change.
It is our role to try to help people achieve better health outcomes and better goals.
– Adam Brumberg
Food for Thought
By being increasingly mindful and present, we can all illicit behavior change for the better.
Taste is context-dependent. Join Dr. Dori Tunstall in her stimulating conversation with Tahltan Nation artist, curator, and writer, Peter Morin. Watch the event here for a live discussion on connecting to your authentic self and forging your own taste.
“Taste” more with the little known world of foraging weeds here.
Willett, Walter C., et al. “Chapter 44. Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle Changes.” Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries (2nd Edition), Feb. 2006, pp. 833–850., doi:10.1596/978-0-8213-6179-5/chpt-44.