Big Data on Flavor

A new study by theoretical physicist and molecular gastronomist Sebastian Ahnert brings us closer to a scientific understanding of the delicious human accomplishment known as cooking.  Ahnert:

“The cultural diversity of culinary practice, as illustrated by the variety of regional cuisines, raises the question of whether there are any general patterns that determine the ingredient combinations used in food today or principles that transcend individual tastes and recipes. “

As a lover of both science and food, I think this is a great trajectory. According to Nature,

“The team found that some common ingredients in North American recipes — milk, butter, cocoa, vanilla, cream and eggs, for example — share flavour compounds with many other foods. Once these foods were removed from the analysis, the extent of flavour sharing dropped away. Conversely, in East Asian cooking, when the team removed the most common ingredients that shared the least flavour compounds (beef, ginger, pork, cayenne, chicken and onion) from the analysis, the flavour sharing in the remaining ingredients increased.”

Consider Chinese Five Spice, a staple flavor of Asian cuisine.  It’s signature comes from activating all five taste areas:  sweet, bitter, sour, salty and uamame (savory).   What’s the staple american spice?  According to the USDA, it’s high fructose corn syrup.  In 2008, the average American consumed 37.8 pounds of the stuff.  Yikes.

Perhaps this research is the beginning of a comprehensive chemical analysis of the stuff we call food.   It may, according to Antonio Roque of the University of Sao Paulo, “inspire practical culinary applications” by empirically organizing how chefs do their thing.  Think Alton Brown meets university researcher.  Yet another reason to look forward to the future.


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