What flavours are you savouring? Natural or nasty?

Flavour, a most curious quirk about our human existence. The one thing that makes the food we eat an experience beyond just providing fuel for our bodies to function. Can you imagine a life without taste or smell? It would make a bland experience indeed! Smell and taste are integral to the human experience, whilst we enjoy flavour as an experience,  flavour is crucial for our body to identify what sort of foods we need.

We experience flavour through our taste and smell senses, and it presents in five ways, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. These 5 basic taste elements are the building blocks of how we select and prepare our foods, it is important to understand these tastes, as it highlights the primal elements of what these flavours meant to our evolution.

Sweet Taste

The sweet taste is found mostly in simple carbohydrate foods, in nature these are found to be energy dense foods (e.g. fruits, milks and grains). It is the most pleasant of tastes, and this likely evolved to take advantage of the energy that sweet foods (natural sugars and carbohydrates) provided us. It is also interesting to note that children have a preference towards sweeter foods, this is something that ALL parents know, living with fruit bats can be a challenge, but it is natural! Just make sure the sweet offerings are whole foods, without refined sugars.

Sour Taste

Sourness, the taste that identifies acidity in foods, is most commonly found in citrus fruits - we've all seen children react to the first taste of lemon, it is definitely a taste that is experienced beyond the mouth! Many fermented foods have a sour taste, for example wines, sauerkraut (translated from German, literally sour cabbage!). Sour flavours trigger our saliva glands (to dilute that sourness), in turn creating a beautiful space for pre-digestion prior to reaching our digestive tract.

Salty Taste

Salty! The simplest of tastes, simply the experience of salt (sodium chlorides) in foods. Salt is mostly found outside food, in the ocean or in land-based salt deposits, although many fruits and vegetables contain salts that can trigger the salt taste response naturally, these are overriden by other flavours (for example; beets are high in natural salt, but we tend to notice the sweet when we eat them!). Adding salt to meals enhances flavour, it is no coincidence the most commonly used condiment is salt! Unrefined natural salt is a carrier of other important micro nutrients, and salts are an important building block for the body, we sweat salt water!

Bitter Taste

Bitter taste is the most sensitive taste experience, many perceive the taste as unpleasant. Found in many common foods, including coffee, cacao, olives, hops and quinine, bitterness is a taste response that may have evolved due to large numbers of bitter compounds being found in toxic plants! The unpleasant response is normal, it probably saved some of our ancestors from an early demise. The most interesting thing with bitter foods, is the great love that we have for them, the top two, coffee and chocolate, are daily favourites for many. Non-toxic bitter foods provide great support for the liver, providing higher levels of sulphur and fat soluble vitamins to the body. Unfortunately there is a tendency to hide the bitterness of foods with sweetness, counteracting the benefits of the taste response. So, try a coffee without the sugar or milk, and find some low-sweet dark chocolate to get some bitterness in your life!

Umami Taste

The "newest" of tastes in the identified taste profiles umami, is the most sought after taste by our palate. The savoury taste that we all love can be linked to umami. Found naturally in fish, vegetables, green tea, fermented foods (the taste is contributed by the bacteria and yeasts), seaweeds and breast milk, umami is enhanced by the other taste profiles, particularly salty. Umami presents itself in the amino acids L-glutamate, guanosine monophosphate, and inosine monophosphate. It is the most commonly found taste in processed savoury foods, it is also the one taste that has been chemically isolated and co-opted in non-food forms and added to processed foods.

Ancient Flavours

Where did we gather flavours from in our past? What did we use to create a diversity of tastes, beyond the staples of fruits and vegetables, before the advent of isolates and additives? The easy answer is, herbs and spices! To create taste profiles that added to our foods, we combined herbs, spices, salts and natural sugars to create tastes that evoked both a body response AND a flavour experience that made food the centrepiece of all our lives.

We mined salt from the earth, and evaporated ocean water to create salt to add to our dishes. We fermented foods to not only store for long periods, but to enjoy the flavour changes that the bacterias and yeasts added to our vegetables.

The discovery of grasses that were full of sweetness allowed us to evaporate the liquid to create natural sugars to add to foods to enhance sweetness. Interestingly, our foods were just natural, we enjoyed the flavours that our foods provided our taste buds, and followed our taste buds to ensure we were accessing a diversity of health benefits. Our obsession with taste did take a turn when we turned what we eat into commodities, rather than necessities.

Modern flavour shifts

The advent of processed foods (beyond our whole food kitchen), brought about a need to create foods that had both shelf life, and a flavour profile that responded to our primal tastes. Whole foods have a limited shelf life (except for some foods, such as nuts, seeds and grains), and previously were eaten before spoiling, or preserved using bacteria and yeast through fermentation. Today, our grocery shelves are stocked with food products (in some cases, food-like products), which due to the nature of their manufacture or ingredient base, have flavours and preservatives added to avoid the natural breakdown of food.

The most important thing to note at this point, is how many steps from nature is the product in your hand?

How much tomato is in the tomato sauce in your fridge, and what is added to the tomato to make it a sauce? Turn the tomato sauce over, and you will be surprised, the other 23% of the sauce isn't tomato! The remainder is made up of SUGAR, SALT, CONCENTRATED VINEGAR, SPICE & HERB EXTRACTS, and SPICE! Sounds fairly benign doesn't it? Last I checked, tomato is pretty tasty by itself, so why is the remaining 23% of the product reserved for the other ingredients? The creators of these products know one thing (thanks Heinz!), our taste buds LOVE sweet and salty, so to make the product stand out, they are tricking us that their product is better than the real thing. This is just one example, but a common thread when it comes to what is added to processed foods to enhance the flavour. Sugar, salt and umami flavour additives are the most common, and are more commonly coming from non-food like sources.

Read ingredient labels. What flavour additives are there? Is there a number attached to it? Ingredient detectives avoid the not-really-food additives food companies add in!

What's added to our foods now for flavouring, and what ARE they?

Sweet Additives

Sweet additives! The most common one is refined sugar, but sometimes these are disguised as other natural sweeteners. Common natural sweeteners can be found on labels as:

  • Sugar;
  • Sucrose;
  • Maltose;
  • Dextrose;
  • Fructose;
  • Glucose;
  • Lactose;
  • Cane juice;
  • Dehydrated cane juice;
  • Cane juice solids;
  • Cane juice crystals;
  • Dextrin;
  • Maltodextrin;
  • Barley malt;
  • Beet sugar;
  • Corn syrup;
  • Caramel;
  • Buttered syrup;
  • Carob syrup;
  • Brown sugar;
  • Date sugar;
  • Malt syrup;
  • Diatase;
  • Diatastic malt;
  • Fruit juice;
  • Fruit juice concentrate;
  • Dehydrated fruit juice;
  • Fruit juice crystals;
  • Golden syrup;
  • Turbinado;
  • Sorghum syrup;
  • Refiner's syrup;
  • Ethyl maltol;
  • Maple syrup - ETC.

Sugar is a whole can of lollies that I will cover off in another blog, but this ingredient is in EVERYTHING when it comes to processed foods, even those lovely gluten-free, organic sauces you buy. Ingredient lists are written in order of volume, so if sugar sits in the top 4 of the ingredient list, it is likely making up over 10% of the total ingredient! Avoid ADDED SUGARS, even natural sugar, it is a compensation for lack of flavour or a way to reduce the cost of a product.

My tip, make your own sauces, you will be surprised that you don't need to add sugar.

Now, food manufacturers are all over this, and have been removing natural sugar from their formulations and replacing them with artificial sweeteners, I recommend that you AVOID any products that have artificial sweeteners, the key ones to look for are noted below (NOTE THE NUMBER, most products just use the number on the ingredient list):

  • Acesulphame-K (950)
  • Aspartame (951)
  • Cyclamate (952)
  • Saccharin (954)
  • Sucralose (955)
  • Lactilol (966)
  • Mannitol (421)
  • Maltitol (967)
  • Xylitol (965)
  • Sorbitol (420)

It should be noted that most whole foods are naturally sweet enough, and when eaten whole (e.g. an apple), the sugars and the combined fibres create a perfect combination for energy and nutrition.

Salty Additives

Salt is a great preservative, and flavour enhancer. The salts that we see on our ingredient labels are generally listed as just "salt", but not all salt is created equally. Table salt is a refined salt, that has additives (such as iodine, flouride, iron and anti-caking agents) added to the salt, whilst all micronutrients have been removed through the refining process. Sea salts are evaporated ocean water salt crystals,  these are generally not refined salts and contain whatever micronutrients that exist in the ocean water used. Unrefined rock salts, most commonly seen on the market as Himalayan Rock Salt, are mined salt deposits (which were deposited by ancient salt water bodies), and contain a range of micronutrients that are beneficial to the human body. If noted on the ingredient label as just salt, it can be assumed that the salt added is table salt, the cheapest salt on the market, avoid these products. Look for Celtic salt or Himalayan salt as better additives, and be aware that sometimes salt is excluded and replaced with artificial preservatives and artificial umami flavours!

Umami Additives

Umami naturally comes in the foods we eat every day, it is the flavour we savour, it puts the savoury into our feasts. Food companies recognise this holy grail of flavour, and try to enhance their products through the use of umami flavouring. There are two types of added umami, both are presented in different ways, and are created in means that make the additive "far-from-natural" - although they are sometimes passed off as "natural flavours". Many umami artificial flavourings contain unnatural glutamates and glutamic acids. Even if the manufacturer claims that they come from a natural source, the process that changes the natural source effectively makes the ingredient a man-made chemical (i.e. nature hasn't made it). Again, I reinforce, avoid ANY added flavours, even if the food manufacturer diverts your attention through the use of terms noted below:

  • Natural flavor (yes, natural flavour can be used to describe non-real food flavours!);
  • Maltodextrin;
  • Oligodextrin;
  • Barley malt;
  • Malted barley;
  • Brewer’s yeast;
  • Malt extract;
  • Seasonings;
  • Spice extracts (if it is an extract, it may have started with something natural, but it has been modified to something that is far from natural, this is a lazy technique by companies to avoid using more costly natural spices and herbs);
  • Herb extracts.

Sometimes, they avoid the deceptive naming above, and clearly outline chemical additives with the E-number:

  • E620 Glutamic acid flavour enhancer
  • E621 Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • E622 Monopotassium glutamate
  • E623 Calcium diglutamate
  • E624 Monoammonium glutamate
  • E625 Magnesium diglutamate
  • E626 Guanylic acid flavour enhancer
  • E627 Disodium guanylate, sodium guanylate
  • E628 Dipotassium guanylate
  • E629 Calcium guanylate
  • E630 Inosinic acid
  • E631 Disodium inosinate
  • E632 Dipotassium inosinate
  • E633 Calcium inosinate
  • E634 Calcium 5'-ribonucleotides
  • E635 Disodium 5'-ribonucleotides
  • E640 Glycine and its sodium salt
  • E650 Zinc acetate

Sadly most products on our shelves have flavour additives in them, it is almost unavoidable. The best way to avoid these, is to turn the packet or bottle around, and read the ingredients, if there is added salt, sugar or flavouring then it is likely not the best option for your body. I recommend you use the Chemical Maze Shopping Companion by Bill Statham (available from our book partner Booktopia here), I use this weekly to remind what is what in our foods, it contains handy smiley faces to let you know what's good, bad and unknown.

Find out how you can make your own, or seek out options that are whole food and use real flavour enhancers, and name the herbs and spices they use!