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Why did Food Taste Better in the Past?

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If you ask people in their 70s or older about the way food tastes today, they'll most likely tell you that it's nothing like what they grew up with. Many initially attributed this to changing times and aging taste buds, but today, studies have shown that what we eat has, in fact, changed substantially over the past century.

This change has occurred for a number of reasons - some good, some bad. Scientific knowledge of tasting has revolutionized everything from the flavors in our sodas to tasting wine at restaurants, but on the other hand, factory farming has made meats less flavorful and nutritious. Overall, modern research and technology have permanently altered the way we produce and consume different foods.

why did food taste better in the past

The Science of Flavors

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Imagine you're at a wine tasting. Before taking a sip, you swirl the wine around your glass and take in its aroma, and you then take a small sip and swirl it around your mouth so that it reaches every corner. This methodical process shows how taste and smell combine to allow us to perceive various flavors.

In our mouths, we have nerve receptors that enable us to detect five primary flavors - sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. While these receptors are somewhat determined by genetics, they're also heavily impacted by what you eat while growing up. Therefore, a person who grew up in the Midwest during the 1930s will have a far different palate than someone growing up in Hawaii today.

In addition to receptors in our mouths, scent receptors also contribute heavily to our perceptions of flavors. Because your nose and mouth share an airway, aroma combines with the five types of receptors on your tongue to enable you to more thoroughly perceive flavors. Additionally, scent often connects more thoroughly with memory, so if something smells familiar, you're more likely to associate it with past memories.

Though this sense differs widely from person to person based on palate development during childhood, scientists can study wider trends by examining data from large population samples. Therefore, many studies have determined that food does, indeed, have a different taste than it did years ago.

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Why the Difference?

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Over the past century, the taste of food has changed substantially for various reasons, including enhanced scientific knowledge of flavor, health, and production techniques. While some of these changes have been positive, others have harmed our health and environment. 

The Power of Flavor Knowledge

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One of the primary reasons behind changing flavors is our enhanced scientific knowledge of the subject. Simply put, we know more about what flavors appeal to the average American palate, and producers create foods accordingly. In the early 1900s, most goods were relatively simple, and they were brought to market as long as they looked unspoiled. However, producers in the modern-day heavily test what they release to ensure that their product is designed to be enjoyed by their target market. Because we know more about flavors and our brain's reactions to good food, producers use that knowledge to optimize their goods, and gastronomy enthusiasts have used it to revolutionize processes from flavor combinations to wine tasting.

In addition to pure scientific knowledge, globalization has brought us access to all kinds of flavors from all over the world. Therefore, in globalized countries like the US or France, everyday persons can access unique spices from the Middle East or India and the hottest peppers from Asia or South America. Because we can now access the best and boldest flavors from across the globe, simple salt and pepper seem incredibly bland in comparison.

Changing Health Perceptions

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Food has also changed due to altered perceptions of what we consider healthy eating habits. Some ingredients, such as lard and other fats, were once quite common in American cooking, but because mainstream society began to perceive them as unhealthy, they have been slowly removed from our diets. The same goes for sugar in recent years - how many products do you see in a store marketed as "fat-free" or "sugar-free?"

Additionally, these changing perceptions have also prompted us to introduce various food safety measures at the production level. Pasteurization, for example, kills off many harmful microbes in dairy, canned goods, and other processed goods, extending food's shelf life and altering its composition. For example, fresh vegetables will have stronger flavors than canned vegetables, which have been pasteurized.

Changes in Farming

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Over the past century, farming techniques have focused increasingly on producing as much as possible with less regard to other matters - especially in the realm of meat production. Chickens today, for example, grow substantially larger than their counterparts a century ago due to advances in breeding and nutrition, and because nutritional additives have prevented many diseases that result from keeping chickens indoors, factory farms with thousands of chickens have developed to produce as much as possible. With the exception of small, organic farmers, most farms today focus on mass production. 

Additives and Processed Foods

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The largest difference between foods of today and of a century ago is the amount of processing and additives involved. In the early 1900s, the majority of meals were prepared freshly from raw ingredients, but today, even home-cooked meals may feature pre-made bread, sauces, or other ingredients. Even base ingredients like milk, flour, or butter are processed in some way prior to filling store shelves. Much of this processing occurs due to the need to transport goods across long distances; as America urbanizes, goods need to travel for hundreds - if not thousands - of miles before reaching the intended consumer.

This processing generally entails using additives, such as preservatives, to keep food fresh during transport. Essentially, these additives seek to mimic the flavors and nutritional quality of freshly-made food, and they can also be used to enhance or create flavor. High fructose corn syrup, for example, is often added to processed baked goods in order to make them sweeter.

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  1. Does microwaving change the taste of food?

When you microwave a bowl of leftovers, you may find that your food tastes a bit different from how it tasted the night before. This change is a result of the way a microwave cooks food. Unlike stoves or conventional ovens, which cook using heat, microwaves cook food using radiation, which produces heat by energizing particles—especially water particles—in food. Microwaves therefore primarily cook through heating these water particles, so if too much water evaporates from the food, it can become dry or rubbery. Additionally, because this radiation heats food from the inside out, you cannot obtain the same taste and texture of oven-baked or sauteed food, and certain chemical reactions that occur when cooking on a stove or an oven cannot occur due to the relatively low temperature of evaporated water. Therefore, when you microwave your food, you may end up with a dish that tastes different because you are not cooking the dish using traditional heating methods.

  1. Is Maggi a junk food?

Maggi is an international food brand that is best known for its seasonings, such as bullion cubes and sauce, and its instant soups and noodles. Maggi also offers a variety of recipe mixes, including mashed potato flakes. Maggi is quite popular in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and Maggi seasoning cubes are a major part of local cuisine in many of those countries.

Despite the brand’s popularity, Maggi has often been deemed a junk food brand since it sells processed foods that are high in sodium and MSG. However, whether or not Maggi is classified as a junk food depends on the product in question. Maggi sauce, which is similar to soy sauce, is high in sodium and MSG, so while it may add an unhealthy element to a dish, whether or not that dish is healthy depends on its overall content—not the addition of Maggi sauce. Maggi instant noodles, on the other hand, are a junk food because they offer little nutritional value while being calorie- and sodium-dense.

  1. What are the side effects of food preservative?

Although preservatives allow food to last longer than it would naturally, preservatives have a number of side effects that impact either the food product or the consumer. Natural preservatives, such as salt or dehydration, are not necessarily harmful to the health of the consumer, but they often substantially impact the taste of the food being preserved. Beef jerky, for instance, is beef that is preserved through salting or dehydration, so the jerky will be tougher and saltier than regular beef. Artificial preservatives have even more side effects. Some preservatives, such as sulfites, can cause allergic reactions, and others can damage your organs and contain carcinogens. Sodium nitrate, which is found in many processed meats in the US, has been linked to stomach cancer, and a number of European countries have begun to ban this preservative. Many preservatives - namely mono- and diglycerides - also contain unhealthy fats. In summary, natural preservatives will often drastically alter the taste and texture of foods whereas unnatural preservatives can cause negative side effects to consumers.

  1. What does MSG do to your brain?

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a common food additive that enhances savory, umami flavors in foods by functioning as a neurotransmitter in your brain. MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid, an amino acid in humans, which allows it to act as a flavor enhancer. Essentially, MSG enhances certain flavors by stimulating nerve cells, which is why it has become a popular additive - particularly in Asian cooking and processed foods.

MSG’s effect on the human brain has ignited a heated debate on whether this additive is relatively harmless or if it is potentially dangerous. Some researchers contend that MSG is an excitotoxin because it excessively stimulates nerve cells and causes a buildup of glutamate in the brain, but others note that this hypothesis is not conclusive. However, certain people may be more sensitive to MSG than others, and some studies have linked MSG to weight gain. Overall, most research has concluded that MSG rarely causes long-term damage in small amounts.

  1. How do you cook a healthy meal that is also tasty?

Any skilled cook knows that eating delicious food and eating healthy food are not mutually exclusive since there are plenty of ways to make filling and flavorful dishes that are also healthy. The first key to making delicious and healthy food is seasoning. Herbs and spices add little in the way of calories, fat, and sodium, but they can greatly enhance the flavor of any food that you cook. Second, you should use fats wisely in your cooking. Although fat has become a dirty word in the world of healthy eating, it actually can enhance your food when used sparingly. Sauteing your vegetables in a splash of olive oil, for instance, will help your body break down fat-soluble nutrients like vitamin K while enhancing the flavor of the dish. Finally, you should do your best to make your dishes from scratch. Fresh ingredients have a higher nutritional content and better taste than processed ones, making them ideal for healthy and delicious cooking.

  1. What is the definition of gastronomy?

At its most basic, gastronomy refers to the science of cooking and eating good food. More specifically, gastronomy studies the relationship between culture and food, the art of preparing delicious and appetizing food, and regional cooking styles. This disciple asks questions such as “why does this food taste good?” and “why are some cuisines spicier than others?” Gastronomy first originated in France in the early 1800s when Joseph Berchoux published “Gastronomie,” which reflected on the science of making good food. There are two main branches of gastronomy - theoretical gastronomy and practical gastronomy. Practical gastronomy addresses the preparation and production of foods and beverages around the world. Theoretical gastronomy, on the other hand, takes a closer look at the systems and processes behind making good food, such as recipes and cooking techniques. In recent years, other branches of gastronomy have emerged to support the discipline. Molecular gastronomy, for instance, studies the biological and chemical basis for cooking.

  1. Do people still use recipes from the past today?

Although modern restaurant dishes look substantially different from what they did a century ago, some recipes have stuck around for ages. Stews, for instance, have been cooked for over 7,000 years. Cooks in the Amazon, Ancient Greece, and even the Old Testament simmered meat and vegetables together in broth or juices. Likewise, curry – a similar simmering dish – originated in the Indian subcontinent around 2,000 BC. Pancakes, which are flat, thin cakes cooked on a griddle, have also existed for centuries, and their recipe has hardly changed throughout their history. Even hamburgers, which are commonly thought of as a modern food, have their roots in the Roman Empire. The Roman recipe for isicia omentata consists of minced beef made into patties with other ingredients, roughly resembling the modern hamburger. Likewise, though cheesecakes have changed substantially since their inception, the Greeks invented the first cheesecake when they mixed honey, flour, and soft cheese to make sweet cakes for parties and weddings.

  1. Why is lard not frequently used in cooking anymore?

In the early 1900s, lard was commonly used in Western cooking, but today, you can hardly even find it in your local grocery store. Lard fell out of fashion in modern cooking for a variety of reasons – primarily availability and health perceptions. First, in the early 1900s, alternative oils, such as Crisco, began to emerge, and companies marketed those oils as a better, healthier alternative to lard. Then, in WWII, the majority of lard went to the military, so more people began using those oils since they were cheaper and more widely available. From there, the decline of lard can be primarily attributed to nutrition advice and perceptions of it as an unhealthy food. Scientists in the 1950s and beyond attributed lard to weight gain and heart disease, so vegetable oils became known as a healthier alternative to fatty lard. Lard thus earned a bad reputation as an unhealthy food, and that reputation continues today.

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