Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat

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Overview

A fascinating and deeply researched investigation into the mysteries of flavor—from the first bite taken by our ancestors to scientific advances in taste and the current “foodie” revolution.

Taste has long been considered the most basic of the five senses because its principal mission is a simple one: to discern food from everything else. Yet it’s really the most complex and subtle. Taste is a whole-body experience, and breakthroughs in genetics and microbiology are casting ...

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Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat

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Overview

A fascinating and deeply researched investigation into the mysteries of flavor—from the first bite taken by our ancestors to scientific advances in taste and the current “foodie” revolution.

Taste has long been considered the most basic of the five senses because its principal mission is a simple one: to discern food from everything else. Yet it’s really the most complex and subtle. Taste is a whole-body experience, and breakthroughs in genetics and microbiology are casting light not just on the experience of french fries and foie gras, but the mysterious interplay of body and brain.

With reporting from kitchens, supermarkets, farms, restaurants, huge food corporations, and science labs, Tasty tells the story of the still-emerging concept of flavor and how our sense of taste will evolve in the coming decades. Tasty explains the scientific research taking place on multiple fronts: how genes shape our tastes; how hidden taste perceptions weave their way into every organ and system in the body; how the mind assembles flavors from the five senses and signals from body’s metabolic systems; the quest to understand why sweetness tastes good and its dangerous addictive properties; why something disgusts one person and delights another; and what today’s obsessions with extreme tastes tell us about the brain.

Brilliantly synthesizing science, ancient myth, philosophy, and literature, Tasty offers a delicious smorgasbord of where taste originated and where it’s going—and why it changes by the day.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 11/10/2014
In this fascinating blend of culinary history and the science of taste, freelance writer McQuaid observes that “everyone lives in his own flavor world,” and that taste is the most subjective of the senses. He smoothly and skillfully explains the layout of the neocortex and how flavor is perceived by the brain. He discusses the tongue and how its varied zones were once thought to correlate to sweet, salty, sour and bitter, imparting serious science with wildly rich prose. “Flavor is only the capstone of a vast, hidden system” that starts in the mouth with a “burst of deliciousness” and leads to “an infinite mesh of sensors furiously sending and receiving messages as the whole body marinates in the chemical flux of the world.” Readers will savor his explanations of the science behind umami, the savory taste identified in 2007, and the description of sweetness as “a delicious and powerful motivator” given sugar’s effect on the brain. McQuaid’s lucid explanations of neuroscientific research on dopamine lay the groundwork for a keen analysis of industrial food production and flavor manipulation while addressing the health issues of the modern diet. When he concludes that “the mystery at the heart of flavor has never been truly cracked,” he sets the stage for an eagerly anticipated second helping. (Jan.)
Library Journal
01/01/2015
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist McQuaid (Path of Destruction) offers up with gusto this fascinating and meticulously researched consideration of flavor and the sense of taste. His narrative draws from chemistry, psychology, genetics, evolutionary biology, geopolitics, human exploration, cultural history, and the art and science of food preparation—an array of disciplines appropriate to the surprising complexity of taste. This multidisciplinary approach enlivens and renders delightful—like a sample of some surprisingly delicious food—stories of the dangerous rise of refined sugar, the wonders of fermentation, the contrary human fascination with chili heat, the biology of bitterness, and the manifestation of disgust. McQuaid's narrative doesn't conclude so much as stop, fairly abruptly, at the end of a chapter on cutting-edge culinary science; but perhaps appropriately so as he notes that flavor continues to pose many mysteries to science. VERDICT This work is an appetizing and satisfying chronicle of what we know of taste, so far. An excellent (and relatively agenda-neutral) choice for those who enjoy Michael Pollan and Gary Paul Nabhan, it is recommended for professional and amateur culinarians, foodies, and all curious reader/eaters, as well as researchers and students across interested disciplines. [See Prepub Alert, 7/14/14.]—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus
Kirkus Reviews
2014-10-22
"Pleasure is never very far from aversion; this is a feature of our anatomy and behavior. In the brain, the two closely overlap." So writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist McQuaid (Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, 2006, etc.) in this provocative investigatory foray into the nature of taste.The author begins with a debunking of the still-practiced basic geography of the tongue that identifies—spuriously—zones for the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. As he notes, every taste bud has five receptors waiting to be tickled and "detect molecules of one of the basic tastes." Though eating is as important as reproducing, it has been significantly less studied in the scientific community, from isolating taste receptors to finding the genes in the genome that play critical roles. "Like other senses," writes the author, "[flavor is] programmed by genes; unlike them, it is also protean, molded by experience and social cues, changing over the course of a lifetime. This plasticity is wild and unpredictable." McQuaid examines flavor chemistry and perception, and he notes that our fields of taste are oddly individual, both within and without our communities—though availability obviously plays a role in diet. The author is especially interesting when noting certain oddments and curios: the berry that turns the tastes around in our mouth; the sugar trap; the creepy, brave new world of the bland milkshakelike drink that does it all, "Soylent" (created through research into "the human body's nutritional needs" to create "the perfect food, building it from first principles"); the advent of cooking; and the arrival of alcohol. McQuaid is an enthusiastic writer undisturbed by dead ends, and he provides an entertaining exploration of "the mystery at the heart of flavor," which "has never truly been cracked."
From the Publisher
"McQuaid is an enthusiastic writer undisturbed by dead ends, and he provides an entertaining exploration of 'the mystery at the heart of flavor,' which 'has never truly been cracked.'" ---Kirkus
Booklist
“[A] thoroughly investigated work. . .McQuaid unpacks with appealing gusto the reasons for the wide variety of human reactions to taste...Tasty offers a full meal.”
David Perlmutter
"McQuaid explores how deliberate manipulation of flavor influences virtually every aspect of the human experience, from pleasure to pain, from joy to sorrow. This is an awe inspiring landmark book, one that clearly deserves several readings."
Melanie Warner
“A delightful and eye-opening romp through the evolutionary story of one of the least understood drivers of human behavior. Taste has defined our migration across continents and propelled us to set sail for foreign lands. It even determines whether we can digest milk or are more likely to become alcoholics. John McQuaid packs this ripe and succulent account with one revealing detail after another, leaving readers with a greater understanding of what it means to be human.”
Paul Jaminet
“Our tastes evolved to help us: delicious food nourishes us and makes us healthy. John McQuaid, in teaching us about taste, engagingly shows how our food can be more pleasing and our lives more healthful. The only thing better than a delicious meal, is a delicious meal eaten after reading Tasty!”
Scientific American
“A fascinating story with a beginning some half a billion years ago…McQuaid’s tale is about science, but also about culture, history and, one senses, our future.”
Boston Globe
"An excellent and absorbing investigation into the origin and nature of taste..[McQuaid] distills and presents in lively and entertaining prose a dizzying amount of scientific and cultural research throughout.”
Business Week
“An exploration of taste in all its complexity and contradiction…McQuaid is a deft writer with a talent for vivid metaphors.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

John McQuaid's Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat begins with a 480 million-year-old meal, an inch-long Paleozoic marine arthropod called a trilobite sucking down a smaller wormlike creature, evidence of which was captured on a tiny fossil discovered in the 1980s. The book ends with more cutting-edge examples of cuisine, from software engineer Rob Rhinehart's development of a nutritionally complete, futuristic food substitute called Soylent to chef David Chang's tinkering in the Momofuku Culinary Lab, where he and his partners ferment everything in sight and then ship the results to Harvard microbiologists for analysis. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist McQuaid writes that recent advances in the science and technology of flavor have helped taste "shake off its second-class status among the sensory phenomena." The same can be said of this fascinating book.

That trilobite, the oldest fossil to date of a predator consuming its prey, kicks off an efficient tour of evolutionary history in one of the early chapters. McQuaid notes that while dinosaurs could husband their energy, mammals' metabolism demanded that they hunt for food constantly. Mammals adapted accordingly, developing larger brains; most of the new brainpower was harnessed to sharpen the sense of smell to aid in the hunt. There is evidence (though not definitive) that close relatives of Homo sapiens used fire to cook food one million years ago. Whenever the shift occurred, it was epochal. With cooked food, McQuaid writes, "the unlikely combination of a small gut and a big brain starts to make sense." It also, he argues, created "the earliest spark of culture," as early humans had to develop the skill to control fire and to pass that knowledge on to others.

As our distant ancestors began to spread throughout the world, encountering vastly different habitats, they were forced to adapt to vastly different flavors, even overcoming aversions to bitter or spicy plants that were intended to repel them. Our sense of taste "has been molded by everything our ancestors ate and drank over the eons," McQuaid writes. Unlike the other senses, which don't present much variation — people tend to perceive the same colors, hear the same sounds, feel the same textures, and detect the same odors — taste has "never occupied a single sensory world, but many." This hints at why it has less often been an object of inquiry than the other senses. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, for one, believed that taste was too idiosyncratic to merit study alongside the others.

To help explain the eccentricities of taste, McQuaid turns to advances in genetics, which have demonstrated that taste perceptions are programmed by DNA. "While both environment and life experience play a role in taste and flavor," he observes, "the variety in human DNA is one of the main reasons why, like snowflakes, no two flavor senses are the same." The traits we inherited, of course, were the ones that improved our chances of survival. For instance, while there are only three receptors for sweet tastes, scientists have identified more than twenty bitter receptors in the human genome, which makes sense because those receptors had a bigger job to do: helping humans detect which natural substances were poisonous. Today some of us have much more tolerance for bitterness than others, which explains why certain people are passionate about Brussels sprouts while others can't stand them. Though these aversions can mellow with time, they are written into our genetic profiles. When, on the other hand, McQuaid seeks to understand why humans are increasingly drawn to extremely spicy food, a preference that "makes no biological sense," he finds his answer not in the hard sciences but in psychological studies demonstrating that "superhot tasters court danger and pain without risk, then feel relief when it ends."

McQuaid's writing is sharp and peppered with some memorable turns of phrase. (In explaining that taste receptors are far less sensitive than other sense receptors to keep the brain from overloading at every meal, he notes that if every molecule lit up the taste receptors, "taking a sip of Coke would be like staring into the sun.") He makes the science in Tasty accessible and fun, so much so that the book's conclusion, a dark warning about climate change and its potential to alter flavors and bring substantial changes to the way we eat, feels abrupt. A "warming world prone to droughts and other ecological catastrophes," where an insect-based diet "might one day become necessary"? That doesn't sound very tasty at all.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451685008
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/13/2015
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 127,510
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John McQuaid is the author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat and his journalism has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, The Washington Post, Wired, Forbes.com, and Eating Well magazine. His science and environment reporting for The Times-Picayune anticipated Hurricane Katrina, explored the global fisheries crisis and the problems of invasive species. His work has won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. McQuaid is a graduate of Yale. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife and two children.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 4, 2015

    A engaging look at what may be our most under appreciated sense.

    A engaging look at what may be our most under appreciated sense. John McQuaid's accessible writing makes the topic as enjoyable as (insert your favorite food). A great read for foodies or anyone who likes to eat. Well worth reading, I highly recommend this book.

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