Where’s the Flavor?

It’s the new year, and the shrinking number of available parking spaces at the gym suggests diets are back in full swing. If you’re like me, you’re hungrily hunting healthier recipes – anything to feel good in those pre-holiday skinny jeans.  As we waddle back to the treadmills, let’s promise ourselves this… shed the pounds, but keep the flavor!

The best food formulas (and home recipes) strike a balance between the basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

Sweet: Most of us recognize (and enjoy) sweetness more easily than the other tastes. (Neither me, nor my jeans are shocked by this.) Sweetness is usually associated with saccharides like fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Alternative sweeteners are becoming popular in diet formulas because the sweetness intensity is higher than sugar – and since the required usage rate is so low, a negligible caloric content results.  Acesulfame K is approximately 130 times sweeter than sugar, Aspartame ~ 200 times sweeter than sugar, and Saccharin 300-700 times sweeter than sugar.

Salty: we usually consider sodium chloride (table salt) to be the definition of “saltiness.” However, a similar response can be gained from compounds like magnesium chloride and potassium chloride. Many food manufacturers are reducing sodium in their formulas by replacing NaCl with alternative salts. However, this isn’t always a straightforward task – alternative salts can elicit bitter, sour, or metallic notes.

Sour: is associated with acids like lactic (found in buttermilk and yogurt), tartaric (found in wine), acetic (found in vinegar), citric (found in citrus fruits), and more. These acids can provide not only flavor, but increased stability as well.

Bitter: is typically hardest for most of us to identify. Bitterness is linked to compounds like caffeine (found in coffee/tea), isohumulones (found in beer), theobromines (found in chocolate), and more.  Quinine (a component in tonic water) can be added to soft drinks to counteract sweetness and round out the flavor profile.

Umami: officially joined the ranks of the basic tastes not so long ago. Umami is responsible for the savory, or “mouth-watering effect” in food. Umami is found naturally in mushrooms, tomatoes, meats and cheeses.

A Food Science tid-bite: Heinz ketchup is one of the more famous examples of a food formula that has achieved a solid balance of the basic tastes. According to some, this unique balance is why many kids (and adults) squirt ketchup on an array of foods. For further info on this (and more) check out this link: http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html

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