Why did Food Taste Better in the Past?
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.
The Science of Flavors
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.
Why the Difference?
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
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
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
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
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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