08:45 - 10:30
Taste Blindness: How Western Culture Limits Sensory Science
Oral presentation
Gabriella Petrick
University of Stavanger, George Mason University
In early September 1912, University of Tokyo chemist Kikunea Ikeda stood before an audience in Washington D.C. and announced his exciting discovery to the International Congress of Applied Chemistry. He told them: “…there is still another quality, which is quite distinct from all these, and must be considered primary [emphasis added], because it cannot be produced by any combination of other [taste] qualities.” In an effort to convey to listeners where they might experience this new taste, he suggested: “An attentive taster will find … something common in the complicated taste of asparagus, tomato, cheese, and meat, which is quite peculiar and cannot be classified under any of the above mentioned qualities [sweet, sour, bitter, or briny]. It is usually so faint and overshadowed by other stronger tastes, that it is often difficult to recognize it unless the attention is specially directed towards it.” The existence of umami as a basic taste is new to Western scientists yet it has a much longer history in East Asia. Although the other four basic tastes have been identified in the West since well before the Enlightenment, the number of basic tastes has varied widely across the globe and the centuries. Ancient Zhou philosopher Yen Tzu noted the doctrine of five flavors, which included hot as a basic taste, whereas Qing commentators noted as few as six and as many as nine. Based on the amino acids, umami has a distinctly East Asian pedigree as foods eaten throughout the region combine these amino acids in much larger quantities than in Western diets. In other words, Ikeda’s and the Japanese palate was trained to experience umami unlike the palates of Western scientists. I call this inability to taste umami and other yet to be known basic tastes “taste blindness.” It also applies to other flavors and textures that do not translate from one culture to another. I argue that taste blindness limits the work of scientists in the chemosenses.