At our 2014 public lecture How We Taste, Chef Wylie Dufresne, Dr. Dana Small, and Peter Meehan explored the tantalizingly complex concept of flavor. The evening was full of scientific discovery, childhood memories, and culinary innovation. In honor of this enlightening event, here are 5 things you might not know about our sense of taste:
Pampered and happy yeast and the perfect beer foam yields delicious beer (and happy beer drinkers).
Attendees of our Science of Pie event this past spring probably remember sampling gymnemic acid. For anyone who has never tried the bizarre substance, we describe here our first experience with it. Guest speaker Dave Arnold (Founder of the Museum of Food and Drink, and host of the radio show Cooking Issues), supplied everyone in the audience with a small capsule filled with a dusty green powder along with a strawberry, a sugar packet, and small amount of honey. He then instructed everyone to coat the surface of his or her tongue with the mysterious green powder, let it dissolve, and then swallow it. After the unpleasant herbal taste faded away, Arnold told the audience to empty the small sugar packet into his or her mouth. Now, sugar is usually the key to sweet desserts and happiness. But to anyone with a gymnemic-acid coated tongue, eating sugar was like face-planting at the beach and getting a mouthful of sand. The sugar was utterly unsweet. Eating honey felt like taking a swig of thick canola oil. The strawberry became tart and acidic. As the audience quickly realized, gymnemic acid has the peculiar property of inhibiting our perception of sweetness.
Gymnemic acid is precipitated from an aqueous extract of the leaves of Gymnema sylvestre, a tree found in Central and Western India, tropical Africa, and Australia.  The leaves of this tree have traditionally been used in Ayurvedic medicine. In fact, the Hindi name for the plant’s derivative, gurmar, means “destroyer of sugar.” Only two other plants are known to have similar taste-altering effects: Bumelia dulcifica, which makes sweet and sour substances taste bitter, and of course the miracle berry of Synsepalum dulcificum, which makes sour things taste sweet. 
You may think to yourself, as anyone who has eaten gymnemic acid surely has, inhibiting sweetness is a miserable idea. Why are we manufacturing capsules of this? Gymnemic acid can do more than ruin your dessert. Today it is used to treat metabolic syndrome (a group of risk factors that raise one’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke), and even malaria. Gymnemic acid is also used to promote weight loss, stimulate digestion, and suppress appetite; it is also prescribed as a diuretic, laxative, and even a snake bite antidote. Gymnemic acid may treat diabetes, as it contains substances that inhibit the absorption of sugar from the intestine and stimulate the growth of cells in the pancreas, where insulin is produced. 
While the precise mechanisms of gymnemic acid on taste perception have not been completely elucidated, a few investigations have quantified the effects of gymnemic acid on taste and the timescales over which it operates. To determine the extent to which gymnemic acid diminishes sweet perception, a 1999 study measured the effect of a gymnemic acid oral rinse on taste perception. Their results showed that gymnemic acid reduced the sweetness intensities of sucrose and aspartame to 14% of reported pre-rinse levels.  These results also shed light on the timescale of taste alteration: Over a recovery period of 30 minutes, the sweetness intensity values increased linearly to a sweetness perception of 63% of the pre-rinse levels.
Another study performed at Kyushu University in Kukuoka, Japan has also shed some light on the molecular mechanisms underlying the behavior of this odd substance on our tongues. Gymnemic acid is not a pure, unique structure, but is composed of several types of homologues, or compounds of the same general formula. According to these studies, the transmembrane domain of Taste type 1 Receptor 3 (T1R3) is the primary site of the sweet-suppressing effect of gymnemic acids. The acid is predicted to dock to a binding pocket within the transmembrane domain of T1R3.  These findings could assist future drug design, and could perhaps lead to the synthesize of more substances that modify receptivity of sweetness. But maybe we should enjoy the wonderful sensation of sweetness as they are.
- Stoecklin, Walter. “Chemistry and Physiological Properties of Gymnemic Acid, the Antisaccharine Principle of the Leaves of Gymnema Sylvestre.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 17.4 (1969): 704-08. ACS Publications. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.
- “Gymnema: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings.” WebMD. WebMD, 2009. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.
- Gent, Janneane F., Thomas P. Hettinger, Marion E. Frank, and Lawrence E. Marks. “Taste Confusions following Gymnemic Acid Rinse.” Chemical Senses 24.4 (n.d.): 393-403. Chemse.oxfordjournals.org. Oxford Journals, 1999. Web. 23 Oct. 2014.
- Sanematsu, Keitsuke, Yuko Kusakabe, Noriatsu Shigemura, Takatsugu Hirokawa, Seiji Nakamura, Toshiaki Imoto, and Yuzo Ninomiya. “Molecular Mechanisms for Sweet-suppressing Effect of Gymnemic Acids.” Jbc.org. The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 23 July 2014. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.
Featuring Dave Arnold & Chef Lena Kwak
June 1, 2014
As part of our 2014 public lecture series, Dave Arnold (of Booker and Dax, the Museum of Food and Drink, and the Cooking Issues Podcast) discussed his latest culinary innovations and the role of creativity in food. He was joined by Chef Lena Kwak (of Cup4Cup) who shared her process of invention, research, and discovery in the kitchen.
Check out the highlights or watch the full lecture below.
Lena Kwak on the creation of Cup4Cup and the power of mistakes
“It was working with food that helped me get over the fear of imperfection. Making mistakes in the kitchen played a significant role in my recipe development. I found myself more daring [and] willing to experiment with different flavors and texture combinations…Take Cup4Cup. The original formula took me about year-and-a-half to finalize. A year-and-a-half is a very long time to make a lot of mistakes…. All the knowledge I gained through those mistakes has actually left me with [another] set of different products.”
Her biggest words of advice: “Go out there, makes mistakes—because you never know what those mistakes will lead you to.”
Dave Arnold on how to be creative in the kitchen
“What is important isn’t that you use a piece of technology or that you use a new piece of equipment. Really it’s that you try to understand what is going on while you’re cooking…. It’s to become unhinged in a very analytical way… that’s the whole premise of creativity.”
Dave Arnold uses gymnemic acid to flip our understanding of sweet foods
Dave Arnold gives the audience gymnemic acid to block their sweet taste receptors and then challenges them to try sweet treats like sugar, honey, strawberries and chocolate. He explains that erasing sweetness enables the taster to examine how other factors like texture and acidity influences the experience of sweet foods.
Arnold says this analytical approach to food is important: “Even if you have no idea why something happens, if you have a hypothesis … and you keep adapting and recording what your results are… you can get to the right place.”
Watch the entire lecture:
Larry Peterman of Hotlix insect-containing candies gives insight into insect farming, and Guy Crosby of Cooks Illustrated helps shed a scientific light on the mysteries of the kitchen.
How We Taste
Featuring Dr. Dana Small, Chef Wylie Dufresne, & Peter Meehan
May 14, 2014
As part of our 2014 public lecture series, we explored the concept of taste from the perspectives of a scientist, a chef, and a food writer. Dr. Dana Small described how our brains respond to flavors. Chef Wylie Dufresne of Wd~50 presented his creative approach to generating surprising food flavors and textures. Peter Meehan shared his experiences with food and taste and how they have shaped his writing, both as a cookbook author and former writer for The New York Times.
Check out the highlights or watch the full lecture below
Wylie Dufresne on Science in the Kitchen and It’s Impact on WD~50
“Cooking is a lot of things and one of the things we discovered was that cooking is a science. There’s certainly some biology. There’s certainly some physics. There’s an awful lot of chemistry at play all the time when you’re cooking… One of the main reasons I opened up WD~50 … was to create a space where I could continue my culinary education, where my staff could continue their culinary education, and where you as a diner, if you so choose, could continue your culinary education.”
Wylie Dufresne on his Aerated Foie Gras
“How could we, using some very modern technology, walk the idea of a mousse down the road? … Part of the problem with a mousse is that it usually has a lot of stuff in it besides the main ingredient… So what we wanted to do was to figure out if we could create a mousse of foie gras, or if we could aerate foie gras without adding or taking too much away from the flavor.”
Peter Meehan on Developing Taste and Eating Everything
“The first step in developing the taste to become a restaurant critic: Eat … I tried to just each everything… the more I ate the more I understood about food and the more I could draw connections about one thing and another… You start to make these mental points on a map of where flavors are in relation to each other.”
Dr. Dana Small Defines Taste
“There’s molecules and ions in the foods that we eat and they bind to cells on these elongated taste receptors [tastebuds]. When enough binds, the cells get excited. They send a signal to the brain that the brain then interprets as a taste … Taste evolved to detect the presence of nutrients and toxics … You’re born knowing that you like sweet and dislike bitter … because you don’t want to have to learn that sweet is energy and bitter is toxin.”
Dr. Dana Small Defines Flavor and How It’s Different from Taste
“Flavor, on the other hand, preferences and liking for flavors is entirely learned. This has the advantage of allowing us to learn to like available energy sources and learn to avoid particular food items … The flavor allows us to identify a particular item that was associated with a particular consequence that we need to remember… whereas the taste provides just a signal about whether an energy source as in the case of sweet is present.”
Watch the Entire Lecture