The New Science Behind Picky Eaters
Photo credit: StockFood / Luzia Ellert
It’s one thing for your brother to hate green vegetables, your beloved to avoid dairy, or your best friend to swear off offerings from the entire country of India.
But good luck cooking for a guest who turns his nose up at mangoes but not pineapples, picks out tomato slices from a burger, and mercilessly plucks at walnuts studding a brownie. It’s like you need a course in Bayesian statistics to figure out his contradictions.
Only, there just might be a pattern that scientists are only beginning to hone in on to explain picky eating: texture.
By now, most people know about the importance of smell (aroma) and the five basic tastes (sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, umami). Texture—or what the aspiring foodie understands as “mouthfeel”—is part of the holy trinity of flavor. Yet that third dimension may be the most under-appreciated and indefinable part of eating.
"We don’t separate texture from the act of eating," observes Barb Stuckey, author of "Taste: What You’re Missing.” “We think of it as a physical act, as if there were no sensory stimulation.”
But there’s a whole host of sensory reactions involved even before you sink your teeth in, among them the visual (assessing how crisp that tempura still is) and the aural (the crackle of a salty chip). When the food finally makes its way into your mouth and you break down those cellular walls (also known as chewing), captive flavors get released, which then warm up in your mouth and linger.
As a professional food taster and developer, Stuckey has pushed a lot of prototypes past people’s lips to get their feedback. Even when it comes to “extreme textural aversions, though, many have a hard time pinpointing and articulating what’s objectionable.” Yet while they may not appreciate texture when it’s there, they definitely notice when it’s not. (That’s why those substitute meal shakes, tasty as they may be, don’t quite satisfy.)
"When it comes to texture," Stuckey said, "we just don’t have a very good vocabulary about that."
Can’t Quite Put Our Finger On It
So why isn’t texture better understood? There’s actually an international standard, ISO 5492, that defines texture as—wait for it—”the mechanical, geometrical and surface attributes of a product perceptible by means of mechanical, tactile and, where appropriate, visual and auditory receptors.” Talk about a mouthful.
That standard wasn’t even set until 1992. Turns out the modern investigation into texture—or really, sensory research—didn’t start until after World War II. Before then, food researchers considered texture too personal to be measured scientifically. Minds changed, according to the textbook “Food Texture,” after the Army made “considerable investment in developing nutritious rations for its troops, only to find many of them did not appreciate what they were being offered.”
Still, of all the taste elements, texture remains the toughest nut to crack. Capturing that crowd-pleasing mouthfeel has been part of a billion-dollar food industry: Think of the French fry wars or the quixotic attempts at (delicious) nonfat ice cream. “Food companies have invested a lot in science to understand how to manipulate the texture of foods,” Institute of Food Technologists spokesperson Kantha Shelke wrote in an email. “After appearance and taste, it is the texture that brings people back to a food.” Findings, though, often remain hush-hush to maintain the competitive advantage.