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A matter of taste

Posted Dec 01 2009 10:04pm

Ever wonder why processed foods often taste better than the real things they’re supposed to imitate? Cake mixes, for example. It’s not easy to bake a cake from scratch that comes out as light and buttery as Betty Crocker’s version. Also fast-food chicken. Canned soups. Instant oatmeal. Frozen dinners. Unless you’re a skilled home cook, your prepared dishes may not have the same addictive quality as the mass-produced kind. This has always bothered me. If our bodies are so smart, why don’t they prefer healthy homemade food to processed junk?

One explanation can be found in last week’s New Yorker in a story called “The Taste Makers: The Secret World of the Flavor Factory.” This article offers a fascinating glimpse into the flavor industry, whose methods and formulas are closely guarded secrets. Specially trained chemists analyze the smell and taste of various foods, reconstruct their chemical components in the laboratory, and mix them together to create supercharged flavors which, though not found in nature, are intensely appealing to the palate.

These flavors are then sold to giant food companies, which add them to everything from sports drinks to chicken soup to cereal bars.

The fact that industrial flavors don’t always match the taste of the real thing doesn’t matter. American consumers have reached the point where we prefer the artificially heightened taste of fake apple pie to the subtle, natural taste of a real apple.

The good news is that even if you’re a junk-food junkie, you can learn to appreciate the flavor of food that originates in a kitchen, not a factory. It won’t be long before you find fake flavors taste - well, fake.
  • Shop at farmers’ markets. There’s a noticeable flavor difference between fresh, real produce, eggs, and meat and their industrial counterparts - that’s why processed foods need that artificial flavor boost.
  • Experiment with fresh herbs and spices. Not only do they taste more complex and intriguing than anything concocted in a laboratory, but herbs and spices also contain healing compounds that ward off disease.
  • Don’t be afraid to use a little fat in your cooking, as long as it’s a healthy type (olive oil, nuts, organic butter). Fat helps carry flavor and makes everything taste more satisfying.
  • If you crave a specific dish from a restaurant or from the frozen food aisle, why not duplicate it in your own kitchen - using higher-quality ingredients? It may take a few tries, but in the end, yours will probably taste even better.
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