Saturday, February 26, 2005

Herbs, spices and the Science of Taste

My herb and spice seasoning range has been well received by cooks, chefs and manufacturers as their flavours are discovered to work in a wide range of dishes.

I have also had feedback on how using my herbs and spices have contributed to making mealtimes a lot easier. One subscriber emailed me a few weeks ago saying that her son was a very finicky eater rejecting more than he accepted. It was my Oz Lemon herb mix which he took to like a duck to water and according to the email, it seemed to even lift his mood and dinner-time became (almost) a pleasure.

Our sense of taste

Why would this be, you might ask? Well there is no doubt that herbs and spices play an important role in stimulating different areas of the 20,000 taste buds on the upper surface of our tongues, on our cheeks, palate and throat. Interestingly, children respond to smaller amounts of flavour (and react more to taste than to smell). Adults can lose up to half their sense of taste and more into old age and it is definitely a case of ‘use it or lose it’. We can condition our sense of flavour and keep it acute by paying attention to what we taste and vary the sources of different stimuli.

But flavours of herbs and spices, fruits, nuts, salts, acids, fat in fact, any flavours, also act on our brains at a basic chemical level. Firstly, this happens as a direct response to the primary stimuli of sour, sweet, salty or bitter. Recently, the extra characteristic called umami has been added and is the overall tastiness, meatiness or savoury flavour perhaps best thought of in terms of beefiness and possibly also the toasty, roasted flavours known as Maillard products (coffee, chocolate, bread and of course, Wattleseed).

An extra degree of refinement is that we have our sweet receptors concentrated on the tip of our tongue, sour and salt along the sides and then bitter and umami in the middle at the back of our tongue.

Each of our taste buds is a barrel shaped cluster of elongated cells equipped with receptive hairs (nerve endings) reaching into the barrel. A single nerve fibre carries stimuli (yes, plural because it may react to sweet as well as bitter, for example) to the primitive taste-brain in our brain stem. This then is relayed to the thalamus and on to be further processed in the anterior cerebral cortex.

Too much information?

If you think that this is not how you taste a cup of Oz Lemon tea, it may be a bit too much detail for you. However, you’d also partly be right. And this is because we have another set of taste detectors which react to the burn of chilli, temperature, astringency and texture. These impulses travel to the cerebral cortex of the higher brain via a different pathway - the fifth or trigeminal, cranial nerve. This is significant since it is also the region right next to the triggers for vomiting, salivating and retching. Presumably, this set of reactions was important to us during our free-ranging, trial and error, hunter-gatherer days.

So, now back to yet other effects of food which are extra-curricular to taste and back to our finicky eater. There are many components of foods which can have pharmacological effects. This might result in stimulation of the type a non-coffee drinker might experience from a caffeine hit. Then there are components which slow us down, mellow us out, help fortify the immune system or affect water balance, electrolyte excretion or energy metabolism. There’s a whole raft of possible effects, just from these components and many occur in high concentrations in everyday herbs and spices. Oz Lemon contains a number of herbs which have components with some pharmacologic properties, namely the stimulating essential oils; citral and trans-anethole. It also contains a mixture of organic acids which have been shown to play a protective role in the bowel against cancer. And then there are compounds we haven't even characterised but which form part of the whole action as a beneficial herbal mix.

For more on the medicinal effects of native Australian herbs and spices, please visit this link.

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