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In an age of tasteless food, could we still find things delicious?

Diets have improved so much and flavors have become so sophisticated that today we can experience delicious food anywhere at any time. We are awash in a uniform sense of what tastes good, which has transformed the joys and values associated with eating. Are there ways to elicit the feeling of deliciousness using information other than our sense of taste?

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In the field of food education, Chie Tokeiji is a food analyst who takes a variety of approaches that differ from prevalent thought based on existing nutrition science. We asked her what she thinks about the fundamental meaning behind the act of eating, and she answered that while meals may in essence be a way of obtaining nutrition, she also thinks that we should not only taste what we eat, but also “consider how to capture information from our food using all five of our senses.”

Are we properly looking at our food?

Tokeiji says, “Eating should be an activity in which we use all five senses to the extent possible—tasting it, smelling it, obtaining images from its appearance… I therefore felt there was something missing in food education that focuses solely on nutrition. I couldn’t help but wonder if we didn’t need a food education program that talks about how we can obtain “information” about our food from all five senses, that it won’t be possible to address the problems in food education by limiting ourselves to things like how to overcome food likes and dislikes.”

As an example, the most focused-upon problem related to elementary-school- to high-school-age children is solo eating, for example by eating convenience store meals or fast food. Tokeiji says that simplistic slogans like “don’t eat alone, eat with your family” do nothing to solve the problem. She says that rather than simply criticizing big problems that can only be solved through changes to our social structure, we should look for ways to make times at which we must eat alone more fulfilling, and think about how we can properly face our dietary habits.

“Nutritional issues are of course important,” she says, “but a primary axis based on how tastes have developed is important too. We need to know whether taste buds in our mouth and throat can properly distinguish between the five basic flavors of sweetness, umami, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. When our ability to taste becomes undeveloped, we can no longer sense food as being delicious. We then tend toward eating alone while doing something else. Our attention becomes focused on junk food and the like, making nutritional control impossible. If we can learn to capture large amounts of information from the food we eat as meals, thereby making eating itself an enjoyable activity, then I believe we won’t need to focus so much on solo eating as being a problem. I’m not talking about enjoying conversation, eating at a table with others, but rather developing a dialogue between ourselves and what we eat, from which we can obtain varied information that leads to deliciousness. I think that if we can learn enjoyment like that from a young age, then we can enjoy delicious meals even when we eat alone.”


We eat information

In the THINK HUMAN PROJECT, under the theme “How can we go beyond flavor to make food more delicious?”, we have conducted experiments aimed at verifying how subjects’ appetites, etc., change as we add non-flavor information to a given food. Specifically, we placed a white, square food like a cookie in a clear acrylic box and asked participants whether they wanted to eat it. Most people did not want to eat the food when it was set against a blank background in this way. There was a significant response, however, when we gradually changed the background, or provided additional information such as the food’s ingredients or the career of the chef who created it.

We do not determine flavor using our tongues alone. In addition to being involved in food education, Tokeiji also consults for restaurants. When doing so, she not only helps them to adjust the flavors of the food they serve, she also provides advice regarding how they should provide information.

As she describes it, “For example, one current trend is for restaurants to provide only ingredients on their menus, orally explaining in detail how items are prepared. They first allow their customers to look at an ingredients list and use their imagination. They then give a detailed description of its preparation while serving the food. By doing so, customers are led through a thought process regarding how the served meal differs from their expectations. This drawing of attention, even a little bit, makes food taste better. The more information people are supplied with, the more delicious their food becomes, and the more they make an effort to savor its flavors. In a similar way, I believe it is extremely important to always increase children’s interest in food, for example by asking what it tastes like, or letting them hear the sounds that are produced when cooking it. Children are just like adults in this sense.”

Tokeiji also suggests that it isn’t necessary for parents to prepare meals. There are of course many people who feel deliciousness from the “information” that they are eating a homemade meal, but Tokeiji is more concerned with passing on “enjoyment of meals” to the world of the future. Even when eating a prepped meal, what is important is properly considering it, using all five senses to their fullest extent, and confronting what the meal asks of us. Perhaps true food education lies in addressing methods by which we can best experience the deliciousness of food.

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