Everyone has their own tastes when it comes to food and drink; what’s one person’s dream meal could be another’s absolute nightmare. How is it that in some cases though, people taste entirely different flavours when tucking into the same food?
One key example is coriander, which for many is a go-to ingredient when cooking or ordering in, but to some tastes like soap (?!). It sounds impossible (and pretty gross) for those who don’t experience it, so we decided to search for answers!
Credit: Jason Tuinstra @wjtuinstra
Many factors play a part in how we experience taste, and scientists have identified five key sensations; salty, sweet, sour, bitter and newest to the game, umami. No, not unagi, the freshwater eel or mindset Ross refers to in Friends, but a sensation associated with savory foods. These are innate, but what we want to know is why the same food can taste so different depending on who’s eating it.
John Prescott, director of TasteMatters Research & Consulting, delved into this area for his book, Taste Matters: Why We Like The Foods We Do. Using 20-year-old student Oliver as an example, who avoids anything spicy, bitter, sour or strongly flavoured despite his parents introducing him to a variety of foods from a young age, Dr. Prescott explains in one chapter, “He has an unusually large number of taste buds, contained in the fungiform papillae on his tongue. In addition, he has a particular version of a specific taste gene (known as tas2r38). This gene can be expressed with three distinct structural variations, and Oliver has the one that is present in around 20–25 percent of Western populations.”
Individuals with a high density of taste buds are referred to as ‘superstars’, while at the other end of the spectrum are non-tasters, who have little or no taste at all (and no cool title). “The more intens ecome, the greater the differences seen between the different taster group,” Dr. Prescott adds. “We can expect, therefore, that highly pungent foods – typically those containing chili or other hot spices – will be perceived as dramatically different, depending on your taster group.”
Credit: Elle Hughes @elletakesfotos
Our memories play a part in how we taste things too. Dr. Prescott notes that flavours are assembled not only from our mouth and nose, but our experiences with food and our memory of them, making them partly cognitive.
Bacteria also triggers changes, as food can change the balance of microbes in our digestive tract. “Gut bacteria not only responds to but dictates the type of food that we consume,” Jeraldine Curran, founder of The Food Nutritionist and a fully qualified nutritionist specialising in digestive health, explains, adding that gut bacteria can be affected by things such as our age, our weight and even how we were born, naturally or C-section.
“So, whether it’s a yogurt or sandwich, the types of bacteria within our digestive tract begin to secrete different substances, activate genes and absorb nutrients,” Jeraldine continues. “The very food that we eat can change the balance of microbes within the digestive tract. The trillions and trillions of tiny microbes – collective know as microbiome – play a huge role in influencing not only how our food tastes but the very food we put into our mouths.”
Credit: Herson Rodriguez @hero
Flavours can even be determined by our genes! Genetic variations could affect how we taste food, and taste buds can be passed down through generations. “Something like 50 percent of food preferences are inheritable. You get preferences from your mother’s diet when you’re in utero through flavours you’re exposed to in the amniotic fluid,” Dr. Prescott says.
So, to conclude our food chemistry quest, coriander can taste like soap due to a few reasons; the person is a taste bud ‘superstar’, they had a bad experience eating the herb in the past (perhaps too much was added to a meal) OR their mother never ate it during her pregnancy, making it an extreme flavour that they’re not familiar with.
Mothers-to-be who don’t want their kids to be fussy eaters, tuck into everything you can before giving birth to give them a varied, sophisticated palette!