We’ve all been served that iceberg lettuce salad that’s decorated with a single, barely red tomato wedge. Even for a hardcore veggie lover, that mealy chunk of flavorless pink cellulose can be a tough sell. So maybe we douse the salad in extra dressing to compensate, or maybe we just skip that portion of veggies altogether. Either way, we walk away eating worse than we should have.
But few of us have ever looked at this lousy salad as a design problem. Because while candy bars and soda have been crafted to be addictive, sugary temptations, our fruits and vegetables have more often been engineered for good old yield. Rachel Nuwer over at Food & Think reasons through this problem, talking to scientists who are working, not just on adding more delectable sweetness to our produce, but doing so without adding any extra sugar.
[S]ugar, it turns out, is not the only sweetness driver. The sweetness of a farmer’s market strawberry or a hand-picked blueberry comes largely from volatiles, or chemical compounds in food that readily become fumes. Our nose picks up on and interacts with dozens of these flavorful fumes in any given food, perfuming each bite with a specific flavor profile. The sensations received by smell and taste receptors interact in the same area of the brain, the thalamus, where our brain processes them to project flavors such as sweetness. ‘The perception of sweetness in our brains is the sum of the inputs from sugars plus certain volatile chemicals,’ said Harry Klee, a researcher with the university’s Horticulture Sciences Department and Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Program, at the American Association of the Advancement of Science conference, held last week in Boston. ‘The volatiles act to amplify the sugar signal so that we actually think there’s more sugar in the food than is actually present.’
A dozen or more volatiles can occupy a single food. Some trigger the sensation of sweetness, others of bitterness or sourness. If we could better understand just how these chemicals interact in foods and in our brains, we could genetically tweak foods to be more to our liking.
Scientists from the University of Florida think that ‘fixing the flavor’ of foods such as tomatoes would make them more appealing to shoppers, which on the long run may facilitate a healthier society. ‘If we make healthy things taste better, we really believe that people will buy them more, eat them more and have a healthier diet,’ Klee said. ‘Flavor is just a symptom of a larger problem,’ he continued. ‘We have bred crops for a higher yield, while quality and nutritional value have dropped.’
No doubt, volatiles–for however poorly they’ve been named–seem like a miraculous natural flavor enhancer that would put Stevia’s one-note sugariness to shame. I imagine the best tomatoes, blueberries, corn, and green beans we’ve ever eaten–picked in summer perfection–lining the shelves of Walmart with mass-produced mundanity. And maybe then, the produce aisle will be as exciting as the candy section.