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The Essential Elements of Flavor

by Cheryl Forberg, RD on June 21, 2011

You may not be able to describe exactly what flavor is but you know it when you see it (or, taste, smell, touch and feel it, to be more precise), right? But what is it exactly?

What we refer to as flavor is actually a combination of all of the above named senses — what our taste buds taste, the aroma we detect, how the food appears to us, and the tactile sensations we feel as we eat (as everyone who’s had a craving for crunchy chips can attest).

Did you know that we can potentially identify hundreds of different flavors? Though our tongues register just five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. (If I had my way, I’d add freshness to the mix. It might not be easily described, but without it, the others don’t mean merely as much.) Taste buds are tiny cells on our tongues plugged into nerve endings that send instant signals to our brain, contributing to the overall sensation of flavor.

Identifying and appreciating flavor allows us to enjoy our food more, and when we stop to appreciate and savor each bite, we end up eating less. When you are attempting to lose weight and stick strictly to smaller portions this becomes of vital importance.

The five tastes we can discern are:

Sweet. If you have a powerful sweet tooth, you’re not alone! The good news is that white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other unhealthy, refined ingredients are far from the only sources of sweetness. Fruit sugars, some alcohols, and even spices like cinnamon all taste sweet — giving us plenty of options for satisfying our craving healthfully.

Sour. The puckering reaction we have to acidic foods like vinegar, cranberries, citrus fruits, and even some vegetables (such as rhubarb) may seem unpleasant on its own. But sour notes can add complexity to a recipe and help balance out other flavors; and a mild tart taste can create a sensation of refreshment, as in a lemon sorbet.

Salty. Sodium chloride — table salt — is the most common source of salty sensation. Salt can enhance natural flavors and balance other spices, but it can also dominate our palates, so that we fail to notice other, subtler tastes. Reducing salt will not only open up a whole new world of flavor, it will also help boost overall health. This doesn’t mean we need to ban it from our kitchens. But learning how to coax the most flavor out of your ingredients makes it easy to cut back on the amount of salt we add to our food as a flavor enhancement.

Bitter. Our ability to sense bitterness may have originally helped our predecessors avoid plants full of poisonous alkaloids. While we still tend to avoid extremely bitter foods, there are plenty of milder variations of this taste sensation we’ve learned to enjoy — our morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine both have bitter notes, for example. Grapefruit skin and tonic water (which contains bitter quinine) are other sources of this taste sensation we tolerate.

Savory (Umami). A relative newcomer to the roster of five basic tastes, umami, a Japanese word that translates as “savory” or “meaty,” was identified in the early 1900s, and has been gaining in popularity in recent years. The rich, silky taste is associated with glutamate, originally found in seaweed used to make soup in Japan, but also found in soup stocks, mushrooms, and many other foods that have a prominent place in the Flavor First pantry.

One of the first questions I ask new Biggest Loser contestants and clients during my evaluation with them is if they add salt to their foods. To enter for a chance to win a one-year membership to the Biggest Loser Club answer this poll question on Facebook, inspired by my evaluation question.