The New York Produce Show and Conference is an unusual event. More intimate than the larger shows, it is second to none in its ambition to provide a world-class event in the Capital of the World.
With this year, we have expanded our University Exchange Program across the Atlantic to a most extraordinary Italian University, and the Professor the school is sending over is doing extraordinarily interesting research. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
(Ricercatore — Researcher)
Taste and Food Sciences
University of Gastronomic Sciences
(Universita Degli Studi Di Scienze Gastronomiche)
Q: Could you provide a preview of your talk? What are the key issues you will bring to light?
A: I will discuss the function of the sense of taste; the influence of taste in food preferences and food choices and therefore on nutrition and health. My research makes the case that vegetables are the best trainers or the optimum way to educate your sense of taste. It is critical to introduce vegetables in the diet as early as possible, not only in children but even during a mother’s pregnancy, to influence and condition taste receptors in order to establish good eating habits and good health that will last in the long term.
Q: Is there a scientific reason why people’s taste buds wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward vegetables? Why is it so challenging to increase produce consumption?
A: I have been working since 1988 on taste sensors — how sense works with the molecules that are present in the food we eat. I have a paper I wrote in English on the molecular aspects of taste, which might be of interest to your readers. When our ancestors were living in the bush, the only way to decide if we should eat something was to taste it. There were no labels.
People were learning in no uncertain terms what was poisonous and what was not. We never think about the chemical composition we eat in terms of taste. Everyone likes foods that are sweet or salted, and fat taste lipids are important. We also have receptors for umami, a Japanese word meaning a pleasant savory taste. This is what we naturally prefer.
We don’t like much bitter taste. Think about a baby or child and what they do when we put something bitter on their plate. We also don’t like acidic foods. It might be spoiled because it has undergone fermentation. Most of the bitter compounds are coming from plants. Plants protect themselves from being eaten from animals.
Q: Doesn’t our sense of taste mature over our lifetime? For example, adults often prefer more bitter tastes than children. Is this based on biological or environmental factors? What about food preferences built on cultural and religious differences and rituals, etc.?
A: When we grow up, we change our sense of taste, especially regarding bitter. Adults like beer, coffee, and many other things bitter. There are also differences within cultures. For example, in Italy, we have a word amaro, collectively used for bitter liqueurs, which are considered medicinal and served at the end of a meal to aid digestion.
On one side, there are information-built receptors and genetics, but also humans are different than other animals. Humans are not as strict on what we eat. It’s not just receptors, but the culture and other causes. There are people who eat cows and those who don’t, people who eat dogs and those who don’t, and the same with snakes. Raw meat is important in some parts of the world and not others.
We know that children and also adults don’t eat that many vegetables. They’re bitter and astringent.
Scientists have been working on studies to show that if you get people used to eating vegetables at a young age, it will change their taste preferences. There is also evidence that when a mother eats vegetables during pregnancy and breast feeding, it impacts a gene of taste preference
If we start introducing vegetables to babies, and serve them to toddlers, we will build a taste preference for vegetables. Koalas only eat one thing. Humans adapt to what we have available. In humans, we see we can get used to eating what is healthy.
Q: Has our genetic system and sense of taste evolved to adjust to modernity and the transformations in the food supply chain?
A: Our genetic system is geared to prefer fat and salt. We eat food because we have to. We eat molecules introduced through food to survive. We have senses that influence our food preferences. We do like sweet, salty, umami, and fat because of our genetic system that accommodated a time where there was not too much food.
The problem until 100 years ago was not eating enough. The world has changed. We have a sensory system to detect food that is old. If you go to the grocery store when you are hungry, you buy everything. In the past, there was a long process to get food. Now, we get what we want quickly. It’s important to educate people on this phenomenon. It’s like driving a Ferrari without knowing how; eventually you crash. You need a driver’s license
Q: Using your driving analogy, what are the main lessons people can pull from your research to avoid reckless food choices and reverse unhealthy eating and obesity trends?
A: We need to let people know as much as possible ways to educate sense of taste, to like or to go for healthy. Right now, we need vegetables in our diet more than ever before. Vegetables reduce calorie intake, introduce variety, and are rich in vitamins and antioxidants. We have to improve the consumption of vegetables. One way is to say they are good for you, but that doesn’t always work because we eat what we like. Nobody can force us to eat something we don’t like.
Q: That said, isn’t this an uphill battle to shake conditioned eating behaviors and food preferences?
A: We have to learn to like vegetables. This is the philosophy and there is scientific proof. Researchers have taken groups of children and introduced them to different varieties of vegetables repetitively, leading to a gradual shift in their taste preferences over time, but there is no easy fix.
You bring up eating behaviors. The problem is that it is very difficult to change habits. We are not koalas, so we can learn what to eat and train our genetic system. Now there are scientific papers to show that the best chance for success is to start with children or even better with pregnant mothers.
We also need a multifaceted effort that follows children throughout their daily activities, such as tending a school garden and integrating that into the educational curriculum. In Italy, officials are trying to improve school canteens and include more fresh vegetables.
Children gravitate to peas, carrots and potatoes because they’re not bitter. However, bitter is very good when it comes to vegetables, offering vitamins and nutrients that can’t be found elsewhere. Bitter is better. We have to get people to choose bitter. We have to teach people to like vegetables.
Q: Do you think the produce industry should try to create new vegetable varieties with tastes and flavor profiles that duplicate or simulate what we naturally like?
A: No. We have to retrain our senses to bitter, hot compounds, ginger, onions, chilies, compounds that may have strange tastes… more tastes besides sweet and sour. Also we need a way to recognize these are good for us.
Q: So produce industry executives who look for ways to compete with junk food companies by disguising fruits and vegetables to taste more like the snacks kids desire is not the way to go? For example, produce marketers, and for that matter parents, adding cheese sauce to broccoli, dipping carrots in peanut butter, spreading cream cheese on celery, or drizzling fruit with honey or chocolate could be counter-productive?
A: That is not the right direction. Now we know these bitter vegetable compounds are good for us, and responsible for the taste. It’s a code. We have to learn the language of taste. It’s an investment for a mom to prepare vegetables, but how much time do they invest in getting their children to learn French or German or something else they believe is important.
We have to give the instrument to learn the language of taste, more vegetables and also different ones. I like to say variety is the taste of life. I think it’s not a good approach to reduce bitter taste. There will always be something more fatty, more sweet or salty, or more pleasant out there. The industry will find it difficult to compete if it’s trying to out-sweeten cookies and cake.
Wild animals decide by taste. Humans are different. They may alter food choice depending on which part of the world they live, or which part of the year, say Easter or Christmas. The code is important. We change over our lifetime. We have to try to start at the beginning with what’s good for us. It’s difficult to find people who don’t like cakes.
It is not just about changing the taste code. Competing with junk food is not the solution. I’m reminded of the expression when a food is so good — “to die for” — usually when we eat something very sweet or tasty. If we just continue going that way, we will die… literally.
Broccoli with cheese sauce is just adding calories and avoiding the real issue. It’s a superficial approach.
Q: What tactics do you recommend?
A: The best time to act is when a woman is pregnant. She pays very much attention to her health and will be receptive to information on what she should eat and why it is so important. Lipids, carbohydrates and fats are present in any foods, but there are antioxidants and nutrients in vegetables that are important to human development.
Just as studies show that the music children hear during pregnancy can be influential, research shows that those introduced early to vegetables will gravitate to those tastes. In Italy, there was a concern that when a mother was eating a lot of garlic while breastfeeding, children weren’t eating meat. That’s not the problem now. We need food less rich in easy calories.
Q: There are claims that characteristics of processed foods actually stimulate bad eating habits. Is there truth to that?
A: In the industry, in the 1940s and 1950’s after the Second World War, the only mission was to sell more food. Now we have all the problems with food-related diseases. I think the aim of the industry has changed. I was reading about the ban of big size soda in New York. There is a push to limit calories in meals, reduce portions. In 50 years, we’ve moved from food keeping us alive to the source of what is killing people.
Even in the vegetable world, variety was selected for longer shelf life and the same shape. Minds are changing. What kept us alive can now kill us. At the same time, with so many advances, we live longer.
I’m not one to say the past was better, but our children are the first generation that has less expectancy of life. That is going down hill. The food system, the industry, even fast food, must change. It will be against their business not to change.
Q: As long as there is consumer demand for sweet, salty, fatty and umami, won’t companies continue to produce what is profitable? Despite all the research espousing benefits of produce, and concerted efforts from both government and private organizations to fight obesity, increasing produce consumption remains a challenge. Does the cornerstone of this change require retraining our sense of taste?
A: It’s not easy. It will take time. We don’t have time to adapt genetically. Our body is very much set to adapt to scarcity of food. We are very good at managing scarcity of food, and not good at managing the excess. We cannot wait to adapt biologically, but humans have brains.
Q: With advances in technology, the world has become so mobile, from international travel and exposure to a wide variety of ethnic cuisines, to an array of unusual produce items and unexpected spices. Doesn’t this create heighted interest to experiment with bitter vegetables and daring taste profiles?
A: We know that we have a genetic sense of taste. Detecting receptors of taste is not so different for people living in Ecuador, India, the North Pole or the South Pole. People move around the world and still generally eat the same. Yes, there is ethnic and cultural diversity within communities. I eat a dish that is traditional where I live. It has a sauce made with anchovies and a lot of garlic and raw vegetables. A lot of children in Italy love it. My American friends love peanut butter, but in Europe I don’t know anyone who does. Marmite, a spread from yeast extract, is popular as Vegemite in Australia. I think it’s awful.
But if you think about globalization of food, pizza, pasta, and fast food have become universal because they’re not bitter or acidic at all.
If you have a dog, you know it will eat all the food that is there. As humans, we learn to adapt. Why do we have to use sense of taste when we can go to the supermarket and buy whatever we want? We have to be more aware of what we eat. We can also change when we’re old, but it’s more challenging. If you want to learn an instrument, you’ll learn much faster when you’re a child. It’s the same with sense of taste.
Professor Morini’s research and the presentation that grows out of it is simultaneously perhaps the most inspiring and most challenging presentation we have ever had at The New York Produce Show and Conference.
It is both inspiring and challenging because, though the good Professor may be Italian she reminds us of Aristotle in her approach: She challenges us to be more completely human and identifies rationality as the key trait differentiating humans from animals.
She also touches on a long term concern of ours — what about the vegetables? In pieces such these here, here, here and here, we have cautioned that the produce industry efforts to increase consumption are sometimes uncomfortably close to a bait-and-switch. First, we promote the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables, research which is typically based on a diverse basket of produce items. Then, we run programs that give out only sweet snack fruit which, in and of itself, won’t deliver the promised health benefits.
In our piece titled, The Bitter Truth About Promoting Produce To Children,we examined a study that showed children recoil from the bitter taste of many of the most nutritionally valuable vegetables and analyzed the challenge this posed for efforts to both increase consumption and to use increased consumption to improve public health.
Now Professor Morini comes along with several specific points:
- The industry is starting too late. It is fine to have school salad bar programs and school snack programs but, we need to start with pregnant women and babies; taste receptors are established in utero.
- It is not enough to simply increase access to fruits and vegetables. We have to understand that there is a need to consciously train our taste buds to like more vegetables.
- Substituting non-caloric sweeteners for sugar — say drinking diet soda rather than regular — may help a bit on the margin with public health but, fundamentally doesn’t work because it feeds our desire for sweetness as opposed to retraining our palates to prefer other tastes.
- Efforts to develop sweeter vegetable varieties or to get children to eat vegetables with cheese sauce, etc., are distractions from the key job: getting people to like tastes they are not used to and getting them to realize these tastes are good for them.
- There is an urgency here. We do not have time to allow our bodies to adapt through the normal genetic process. We need to use our intellect and make choices that we are not driven to make by our own genetics. We are suited for living in a world characterized by a shortage of food and we live in a world of abundance. This leads to obesity and related complications.
It is a fascinating thesis and may well be true — what is not clear is whether it is possible on a mass scale.
We know that some individuals get “religion” and dramatically change their eating habits. We know that there are shifts that occur gradually as people age.
But do we have even one example of a whole nation dramatically changing its eating habits to be healthier?
It is fine to admonish people — but there are plenty of people who don’t make the effort to make sure their children speak French or German. What are we to do about those people?
Inevitably a campaign such as this seems likely to have class-based implications. In affluent countries, one reason poor people are poor is that, because of low education and relative isolation from knowledgeable social networks, they are not good at picking up societal messages as to what behaviors lead to success. It is the affluent and educated who are likely to have the presence of mind to hear messages such as this and act on them. We see this already… habits such as smoking and behaviors that lead to obesity are less common among the more affluent and educated.
What reasonable expectation can we possibly have that the general population will so dramatically change its behavior?
It is a fascinating topic, and we can’t wait to hear Professor Morini give her presentation at The New York Produce Show and Conference. In fact, she will be giving two. The main presentation will be given as part of the Educational Micro-Session Program on December 5, 2012 at Pier 94, and a second special version also will be adapted to the interests of the foodservice and culinary segment of the industry and presented as part of the “Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum on December 6, 2012, at the Sheraton New York Hotel.
Make sure you are there to hear this thought-provoking presentation; you can do so by registering here.
In addition, as mentioned above, Professor Morini will tailor her message to culinary and foodservice professionals at this year’s ”Ideation Fresh” Foodservice Forum, held on December 6. If you would like more information on this conference, please email us here.
If you are interested in coming early to The New York Produce Show and Conference and want to immerse yourself in international trade, we have a separate event — The Global Trade Symposium — held on Tuesday, December 4. If interested, please email us here.
Hotels are available at this link.
And we have negotiated a roster of travel discounts which you can find here.
There is also an extensive spouse program, which you can sign up for here.
And a roster of great tours can be signed up for here.
We invite you to come to The New York Produce Show and Conference and Celebrate Fresh! It’s also where the industry starts thinking in new ways. Come and be part of that conversation.