Sweet tastes to sweet cat

This week's New Yorker has two interesting articles but unfortunately, neither are available on-line. I'll summarize the bits I found interesting from them for you.

The first is actually called "The Department of Food Science: The search for sweet" and is about the development of calorie-free sweeteners. I am so pleased to see food science articles beginning to make mainstream media. I hadn't realised that sucralose was developed at my Alma Mater, Queen Elizabeth College, London about 10 years before I was there. Sadly QEC ceased to exist after my freshman year when is was merged with Kings and Chelsea Colleges to become, briefly, KQC and now is plain King's College, London.

If you found my previous articles on food and taste interesting this is a good introduction. What's interesting is that it seems that our response to sweet was an important evolutionary step. Other animals aren't as sensitive to sweet tastes as humans (or primates?). For example, cats can't taste sugar, as carnivores sugar isn't an important part of their diet. We, humans, on the other hand can taste sweet both in sugar and in sweeteners and differentiate between different sugars and sweeteners.

Sensory science and taste receptor science has taken a huge leap in the last 5 to 10 years as explained by Charles Zuker:

Until recently, he [Zuker] told the audience, the prevailing view of how taste receptors work was 'idiotic'. Most scientists believed that each cell in a taste bud carried receptors for all five basic flavors – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, the savory taste of protein…

"It made no sense," Zuker told me later. "Sweet and bitter prompt fundamentally different behaviors. Sweet is to determine caloric content; bitter is to warn you against toxins. It is the difference between life and death." Why would the same cell send both signals?

Zuker's team and others from Monell Chemical Senses Center and Harvard, have isolated receptors for sweet, bitter and umami.

"The taste receptors that Zuker found were much simpler than biologists had imagined. Instead of bristling with every kind of receptor, each cell was tuned to a single frequency: some cells detected sweet, others bitter, still other umami."

One set of compounds researchers are looking for are "taste potentiators". These compounds don't have a direct affect on taste themselves but amplify the taste of other compounds. Salt is actually a taste potentiator. Herve This in Molecular Gastronomy has an article on how he studied this. MSG is another taste potentiator.

I found it interesting that it was found that people couldn't stick to a sugar-free diet. So you can't test if people lose their appetite for sugar. People were able to give up salt and after giving up salt for awhile their appetite for salt diminished. I can attest to that, having done it myself. It took about six weeks for food to have any taste or for me not to crave salt, and I do use lots more herbs and spices in my cooking than other people.

Just be careful if you make a face while eating something unpleasant, if a dog is around. Dogs apparently are experts on human behavior and our subtle signals. This was in the other New Yorker article I enjoyed. It was a profile of the "dog whisperer". Not having TV, I wasn't aware of this show and neither am I particularly a dog lover, but what I found interesting was the comment:

"The key specialization of dogs, though, is that dogs play attention to humans, when humans are doing something very human, which is sharing information about something that some one else might actually want."

The article goes on to suggest that dogs are more responsive to the subtleties of human behavior more than other primates, such as chimps, are. I personally used to be scared of dogs as I was bitten by one when about five. Then I realized that you had to let them know that you were the boss and dogs would behave while following to the end of the earth or over the cliff or wherever you chose. I prefer cats – I love their selfish, "come here and worship me" attitude:
murphy 1999

Update (22nd May 2006): Since articles aren't online, you will need the references:

Bilger, Burkhard, "Department of Food Sciences: The Search for Sweet" The New Yorker May 22 2006, pages 40 – 46.
Gaskell, Malcolm, "Profiles: What the Dog Saw" The New Yorker, May 22 2006 pages 48 – 57.


4 thoughts on “Sweet tastes to sweet cat

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