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Jul 23, 2006 10:31 PM

Can we really fool our taste buds?

There’s a feature article about getting over a fear of artificial flavor. It can be a good thing.

Jim has always been really gracious and even encouraging about disagreeing with his food opinions (I figure a little intentional ... yet sincere ... sucking up won’t hurt here either).

It is just that I have been thinking about this. I actually wrote this days ago and sat on it.

It seems true that we should not be afraid of deliciousness in artificial flavors, share our finds and call attention when someone gets it right.

BUT ... I’ve been thinking about this since trying Heinz organic ketchup. One poster wrote about trying that product ...

“... it's a taste I remember from my childhood but forgot I wasn't tasting any more.”

That sentence made me uneasy.

Will flavoring additives really get that good or wiill we forget what good is? A a taste like Heinz, catches my attention and whispers. “This is how things are supposed to taste”.

I’m a big fan of Alice Waters who started a gentle revolution by showing how the simple, if done well and naturally, can be a transcendental experience. A silly thing to say, but maybe without Alice Waters the future never would have resulted in Heinz organic ketchup.

I agree there will be innovations in flavor that we can’t imagine just as Shakespeare would never imagine the dvd. Yet ... it takes effort, but IMO, nothing matches reading a book ... not the greatest play or movie with the most brilliant stars.

Perhaps there is deliciousness out there that is unimaginable to us today just as theatre in one’s home at one’s bidding was unimaginalbe even 100 years ago. But maybe what is unimaginable to us today is ... the greatness of our past. To someone who has never read a book, how do they know what they are missing?

Could that be true of the future of flavor? Yes, unimaginable deliciousness in the ersatz but what if in the hunt for deliciousness in the brave new world of flavor ... the real and true no longer exists even in a memory.

There is still to me, something that rings a bell whenever I eat superior versions of the fresh and natural. It is like a wake-up call and my eyes open wide in surprise and delight.

What bothers me is not that both the real and the manufactured can happily exist side by side, but the new erases even the memory of the old.

Also, will what is real be yet another thing reserved for the privileged?

Martha Stewart’s life-style always seems ironic. I’m of Polish ancestry, like Martha, and my grandparents had a similar lifestyle to Martha’s ... chickens in the back yard, gardens, cellars groaning with superior home-made canned veggies, fruits, jams, etc. It came out of necessity and lack of cash. Today it takes a Martha wealth to live ... poor. Most of the truly poor, like my grandparents, are at Food4less or dollar stores to stock their cupboards.

There are many people today who can’t imagine or even recognize deliciousness outside of chain food and we are no where near a zenith of excellent artificial flavoring. I can’t imagine the home office chefs of an Olive Garden type place, no matter what tools are at their disposal, are going to achieve greatness and rise above the lowest pleasing common denominator.

Although artificial flavor is only in its infancy there are indications that our bodies know the difference ... diet soda can make you fatter, for example, because our body is expecting the real thing.

Could those be some dangers in the future of artificial flavor, no matter how great?

I know the quote at the start of the feature answers this question ... but still ... if one only sees the painting, how can they compare it to nature?

All I can say is buy a bottle of Heinz organic ketchup.

Although sure, I'll be the first to report if a ketchup without even the word tomato on the ingrediant list surpasses it in taste ... but I'll have to have try a bottle of Heinz next to it ... just to be sure.

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  1. Hi. I had a couple of packets of regular Heinz in the fridge and a btl of the organic Heinz so I did a taste test. I put the packaged Heinz on a regular soda cracker. Not much to it. Not as spicy as I remember thinking it was when I was a kid who was in love w/ ketchup. There was an unpleasant, slightly metalic aftertaste. So I took a big drink of water. On to the organic Heniz. Wow. I'm in love w/ ketchup all over again. This tastes as it tasted when I was a kid. Slightly sweet, very tomatoey, notes of garlic and onion, a little bit of vinegar but not sour, just slightly sharp. All in all a very well-blanced flavor w/ sweet and sour notes and no unpleasant after taste.

    1. While I think that, generally, you are right, I can't let the following stand:
      "Although artificial flavor is only in its infancy there are indications that our bodies know the difference ... diet soda can make you fatter, for example, because our body is expecting the real thing."
      Simply untrue. Your body doesn't have psychological associations, and if you aren't consuming excess calories, you will not gain weight.
      Additionally, it makes far more sense to me to frame the discussion in terms of quality, complexity and depth of taste, things often most present in the "original," than in terms of possible "dangers" that tend to be inflated and sensationalized (or fictional). Often, the flavorings added to foods are lab-created exact chemical replicas of the ones actually present in the "real" food.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Whippet

        The main problem, as I see it, is that lab-created flavorings, no matter how good, are by their nature uniform, and therefore the variety and complexity of natural flavors is missing. Peach flavoring -- even excellent peach flavoring -- will always taste the same, but every peach tastes different: some imperceptibly, some quite distinctly.

        What I think is interesting about non-natural flavorings is the possibility of flavors that are not imitations of natural flavors, but that are completely new. In fact, some artificial flavors have already become "classic" in that way. "Ranch" and "nacho cheese" and cherry lifesavers don't really come close to approximating any flavors found in nature, but they have their place.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          "Ranch" dressing started out as an all-natural recipe.

      2. With the exception of salt, if it didn't come from a plant or an animal, as far as I'm concerned it's not food.

        If it's not food, I'm not eating it.