Taste & Health

Taste is a survival tool that helps us determine whether something is edible or harmful to our body. Since most natural toxic substances trigger “bad” flavor to the taste buds, this stops us from eating toxic substances, polluted or expired food. However, if taste is as simple as life and death, why would humans develop such a fine and intricate spectrum of taste? Between edible and lethal, our taste seems to be more preferential and even personal than it needs. Most animals have very narrow selections of food and only rely on very specific food chains. Some have a wide selection of food, but they are usually not fussy. Paradoxically, human eats a wide range of food, but choose very selectively.

In Darwin’s theory, redundant body functions are usually lost in the revolution. If humanity continues to possess and even specialize our sensitivity in taste, we can almost assume this fussy trait is vital to our survival. If, it is more than an arbitrary preference, how does sensitivity in taste help us survive better? Survival is to stay alive within an environment, maintaining an equilibrium between our body system and the environment system. If taste is a survival tool, how does it respond to the environment? 

Taste and Weather

Our body naturally responds to weather and adapts our preference in taste. We naturally seek warmer food when the weather is cold and perhaps colder dishes in hot summer. Spicy food like ginger generally helps us chase away the cold and improve our circulation flow to resist the cold. On the contrary, cold food encourages our appetite when the weather is hot, and refreshing drinks seem to replenish our loss of minerals for sweating.

Taste and Geography

Wine is a fine example of how taste reflects geography, or more specifically, the terroir. A Sauvignon Blanc might taste more mineral-like in one origin but fruitier in another. Despite using the same type of grape, wine from different regions exhibit very distinct flavor profiles due to the soil that the grapes grow from, regional ecology, and even local artisanship. Although the difference in wine origin might not be a life and death matter, it proves that humans are capable of “reading” our environment with our taste. Being able to notice how the quality of food varies from place to place, is a hint for agricultural societies to determine what locations are fertile and productive, in order to maintain quality food resources for establishing healthier and more stable societies. Taste is a foundation of communal survival.

Taste and Internal Environments

Aside from external environments, taste also responds to the internal environment, which is our body. For example, a sudden craving for sweets could be a sign of low blood sugar levels. When we are sick, our taste also changes and makes us adjust our diet. Patients often have a different sense of taste than healthy people, turning them away from certain kinds of food that might further burden the system. 

However, what we want is not the same as what we need. As an example, junk foods plays tricks on our mind, and comfort us in a short time, but leads to negative health impact in the longer term. Thus, having a holistic and complete experience of “taste” would be important if we are serious about developing taste as our survival tool. Once we are able to “taste” what our body needs, we will be able to maintain our health by adjusting our diet, absorbing the nutrients we need physically and mentally. In the opposite, negligence to taste often cause health problems in long term.

How Taste Regulates the Body

On top of the understanding of taste from a survival perspective, how does the medical field see the relationship between taste and the body? From a nutrition angle, taste helps us maintain a healthy amount of chemical consumption, which includes salt, sugar, caffeine, and many other chemicals. The chemical balance in our body is highly related to concentration and dosage. As a simple example, every tea drinkers have a preference of strength in tea drinking. If a person consumes a tea that tastes too bitter to them, the excess caffeine might upset their stomach or affects their sleep.

Moreover, everyone has different body tolerance to caffeine, sometimes the level is reflected in their taste preference. Moreover, loss or dysfunction in taste leads to an unhealthy level of sugar or salt consumption in their diet. In a long term, it is possible to result in health problems such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

Taste in Asian Theories

Early records in Chinese medical theories stated how each of the taste influences the body’s elemental balances. According to the Esoteric Scripture of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝內, an ancient Chinese medical text dated around 475 BC and 220 CE, the five basic tastes align with the five elements and synergize with each of the five major organs. Bitterness act on the heart (fire); sweetness act on the spleen (Earth); spiciness act on the lungs (gold); saltiness acts on the kidneys (water); and sourness acts on the liver (wood). The intake of each taste will strengthen the organ of the same elements and repress the organs of the opposing element. 

The Five Elements

These represent five different patterns of chi (energy flow) in Chinese Medicine, a conceptual scheme shared by many Chinese ancient subjects including Chinese geomancy, cosmology, alchemy, divination, music, military, and martial arts. The scheme explains the dynamic interactions between five forms of energies flow:

Fire generates earth and weakens metals; Earth generates metal and weakens water, Earth generates metal and absorbs water, Metal generates water and weakens wood, Water generates wood and weakens fire; wood generates fire but weakens earth. The elemental relationships are phenomenal abstractions and often have different applications when discussed in different subjects. When applied to our body, Fire (heart) represent rising and warmth, earth (spleen) represent digestion & absorption, gold (lungs) represents sink and collection, (kidneys) water represents downflow and storage, wood (liver) represents growth and spread.

By adjusting the intake of taste according to elemental balances, we are able to adjust our organs’ performances. For example, bitterness like coffee and tea often helps us stay alert and awake (the heart is responsible for stamina), tomatoes help nourish the liver; ginger is good for relieving respiratory symptoms. However, The Scripture also explains how an imbalanced diet disrupts our organ’s health. For example, the over-consumption of salty flavors (Water) damages the hearts (fire element) represented as water element against fire element. If we translate it into western medical terms, it is considered as high blood pressure caused by a high sodium diet. 

A pot full of flowers to aid aroma and taste.
Photo by Ju Desi on Unsplash

How to Develop your Taste

Tea Tasting

Tea tasting is one affordable and fun way to learn and train our tasting skills. In tea tasting, practitioners analyze taste in three major aspects: Aroma, flavor, and textures.

Aroma & Taste

The first step of tea tasting is to appreciate the aroma of the tea. Aroma works with flavor and other sensations together to form taste. We cannot omit aroma when we do a tasting, especially for tea tasting. If we look at flavors from the chemical lens, they are present in both gaseous and liquid forms. To be more specific, it is a dynamic spectrum of chemicals in both gas and liquid state. 

Aromatic chemicals are often organic molecules that are heat sensitive. This means they can be present in the liquid and released as gas when the heat is applied; the former mainly detected by our taste buds and the latter detected by the olfactory cells of our nose. Our nose can only detect some flavors as aromas but not our taste buds, some need both to be recognized. In fact, a disorder in smelling ability is the most common cause of taste disorder.

Before we serve tea, we warm up the cups to ensure the tea aromas to remain active when pouring in the tea. Then, we inhale the aroma from the tea while they are still hot, and breathe out sideways to avoid contaminations. In organic chemistry, we know that smaller molecules are more volatile and they are more likely to leave the liquid as an aroma. Thus, the flavors that we can inhale are likely to be smaller in molecular size, which is often floral, fruity notes.


Misconception of the tongue map


Flavor and Our Tongue

The second step of tea we focus on flavor. Rather than taking an overwhelming gulp, having a small sip helps the flavors to present with clarity as to the first impression of the tea. Some might already know that the old fashion tongue map is a common misconception about where different taste buds are located. It is later found that all the tastes exist on all parts of the tongue. For example, the tip of the tongue could be relatively more sensitive with sweetness, instead of the oversimplification of one taste per zone. Small sips of tea avoid the overpowering of flavors and help us to observe a linear process of taste transformation, as each flavor transform and releases along with different parts of your mouth cavity. 

Taste and texture

For the last step of tea tasting, we drink a full mouthful of tea, fully immerse your mouth with the tea to appreciate the flavors in full strength, and feel the texture of the tea. When we taste the texture of tea, we are looking at two factors: smoothness and the body. 

Smoothness is often determined by how many tealeaves particles are present, the concentration of tannins, and the nature of the tea. Often well-made teas preserve the integrity of the leaves and produce “cleaner” extractions, tannin is famous for leaving a “dry and rough” feeling for the tongue and some tea naturally carries fine hairs and small particles that can be filtered. 

The body, I sometimes refer to as the architecture of liquid, is a more advanced topic in tea making. The body is the results of the water quality, the mineral content of the tea, and the extraction methods, which sometimes we can observe visually as a reflective index. Usually, a more saturated extraction gives a full, rich and round body of tea.  A good body structure supports and balances the full range of flavors.

Taste as a dynamic process 

Taste is not a static shot, but a dynamic and on-going process. For example, a small bite of wasabi begins with tingly and spicy flavors. It becomes a pungent punch of horseradish aroma. Then it becomes an explosion that shoots up the nose and finally making you tear. The effects should wear out in a few minutes. However, there are spices that can influence your taste for more than hours.

For tea, flavors release at different time intervals. For flavors that “reveal” themselves after a minute or so of ingestion we sometimes referred to as “after taste”. One of the theories suggests that “after taste” is caused by the polyphenols of tea. These chemicals combine with protein in saliva to form a thin layer of compound, which temporarily blocks some of the flavors of the taste buds. When the layer disintegrates, the taste buds receive flavors not detected at the major tasting.

After the After Taste

Taste does not end with the oral sensations and after taste. The full spectrum of taste involves the sensitivity of not only our tongue and mouth cavity but also our whole body and even our minds. Different foods have different effects on the body after consumption, as a response to the chemicals. For example, one judging aspect for quality tea is evaluated by observing our body reactions to the tea: some high-quality tea induce body warming and even instant sweating that helps circulate the system. Some teas have longer-term effects such as helping with digestion or even longer effect such as reinforcing the immune system.

Taste as a mental exercise

Taste as communication

Humans can communicate visually, verbally, physically, and by taste. For instance, many are able to recognize whether their family or someone else cooks a dish, even it is the same dish. It could be a certain style that a grandma uses the spices; it could be the temperature the father uses when they do the frying. Cooking itself is an exercise engrained with a person’s fingerprint and the same goes for tea making: Experience tea makers can often tell who made the tea by tasting it.

Taste and feelings

Unbelievably, our taste can decipher feelings as well as nutrients. In fact, all of our senses generate feelings. We shall not forget feeling itself is part of the survival mechanism. When we like or dislike a certain flavor, it affects our survival. The taste of blood makes us alert, the flavor of honey is often soothing. The more details we can differentiate in taste also associated with the complexity of our emotions and memories that relates to them. In another word, people with more sensitive tastes also have a finer sense of feelings.

Being able to experience the feelings in taste is the first step of being able to infuse feelings in your tea. Being able to alter the mental status and feelings could be the easiest or most advanced aspect of tea making. Some people make a tea that makes you smile instantly, and some calm down your mind. Sometimes a cup of tea can even distort our perception of time & space.

Tea prepared for taste-testing.
Photo by Alisher Sharip on Unsplash

Dulled Taste

A tool can be sharpened as well as dulled. While very few are lucky enough to develop their taste palette, many have dulled their sense of taste with bad eating habits. Getting used to fast food, MSG, microwave diets are the very common reasons for dulling taste. The sense of taste has a part to do with economic status, but much more dependent on environmental factors.

Our environment shapes our resource availability and our lifestyle. For example, a poor villager could have a more developed taste than someone rich who dwells in a city since the former is able to harvest fresh food, and the latter, despite being able to access different styles of cuisine, the availability of very fresh food is not as easy. 

Aside from the lack of quality fresh food, getting used to overly spicy or extreme flavor also blunt our sense of taste. The spiciness is causing painful feelings in the mouth cavity but scientifically, spiciness does not damage but only temporarily numbed the sense of taste. To counteract pain caused by spiciness, the brain shut down the sensitivity of the mouth cavity. Still, in a long term, over-spicy, over-salted, or any extreme flavor tends to desensitize our taste on a neural level.

Mentality for Taste Training

Taste exploration is an active process, not a passive one. Being “used to” monotonous taste, extreme taste or even bad taste is very possible in killing our taste. On the other hand, neurons grow and develop more when being used. Start being attentive to what we eat and observing our body’s reaction is the first step to develop a stronger sense of taste.

Taste can be trained and studied: one way of improving taste is keeping a tasting journal. While actively trying new flavors and textures of food and drink increases our exposure, having words and memories that can describe the flavors is something that we need to establish too. One cannot understand what the flavors of Osmanthus flowers are unless they try them in their life. We can greatly improve our taste with the practice of tasting and learning. Wine tasting and tea tasting are both very good exercises to improve our exposure to the sense of taste.

Develop a Holistic Taste Experiences

Fully comprehending taste is not as easy as it sounds; it takes time and patience to enjoy the full process of “tasting”, physically and mentally. The effect of taste is more than the burst of flavors on taste buds, from the cooking aroma to the flavors on our palette, textures of the food.  It encompasses the short and long-term reactions of our body and mind. The holistic process of tasting is fully immersive with multiple times and dimensions. For those of us which “tasting” had been degenerated to merely food consumption, perhaps, in the era of slowing down, we will have the time to train our senses and hopefully able to pick up our primitive skills again.

Harry Lee

Harry Lee is a landscape designer & artist. He creates poetic tea ceremonies, immersive landscapes and urban scenography. His works can be found in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, Shanghai & Riyadh. With tea as an art medium, he immerses his audience in phantasmagorical environments. Born in Hong Kong, he grew up learning geomancy, Taichi and Chinese herbal medicine. He started doing Zen Tea meditation when he was residing with an urban tea tribe in Shanghai. He has been performing tea ceremonies around the world for 5 years. Trained in Master of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University, Harry studied Japanese Tea Garden & Immersive Landscapes for his thesis. His recent works in tea & landscapes include: the Lunar Tea Ceremony collaborated with Teresita Fernández in Harvard Yard, the tea performance Meta Morphosis in New York, and the immersive Hotpot Garden that attracted 1.48 million visitors in Chongqing. He is also the founder of Harvard GSTea, a non-profit organization that promotes the practice & exchange of tea culture across the globe. Follow Harry on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harrylee.world/

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