When I was younger, I was a complete flavour-phobe (I totally made that word up but just go with it). My favourite meal was plain pasta and cheese, I was terrified of spicy food and trying things I didn’t recognise..basically anything that didn’t taste like sugar or wheat was a no go. This actually makes perfect evolutionary sense. Early primates and humans found food by foraging in forests, using their sight and taste to identify nutritious items. But the risk of making poor food selections not only wastes energy, but could lead to ingestion of potentially harmful and lethal toxins.
These same processes shape our food choices today. As babies, we have known food knowledge, so treat every new item as a potential threat. Thus, we are intrinsically designed to be wary of novel foods and stick to what we recognise and are sure cannot kill us. But in our modern world, such a vast number of incredible flavours and colours are at our disposal, all of which we can be pretty confident won’t be toxic. But still many (especially children) hold onto that fear of trying new food types and flavours. but it is encouraging our society to eating unhealthily. In fact, we are encouraged to ‘eat the rainbow’ for a balanced diet of various nutrients. The learned consequences of ingested foods may subsequently guide our future food choices. If we are exposed to lots of different flavours, our palate will grow wider and we will enjoy a range of things.
Now vegetarians/vegans/clean-eaters get a lot of stick for being boring and not eating what everyone else sees as ‘fun foods’, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Since starting my ‘healthy eating extravaganza’ (as it is becoming known in my house), my flavour preferences have dramatically changed. Restricting intake unhealthy foods forces you to explore different options, I am now very familiar with fennel, kale, acorn squash and dragon fruit – things I would never have dreamed of eating a few years ago. My change from the beige diet (bread, pasta, cake etc.) hasn’t only made me healthier but has made cooking a whole lot more interesting.
This got me thinking about how what food looks like influences the way it tastes. There is a huge literature to suggest that the food colour effects its’ perceived flavour. For example, Calvo and colleagues gave participants an identical yoghurt but added pink food colouring to one. The rates intensity of flavour rose dramatically for the coloured yoghurt – despite them actually tasting the exact same. It has also been demonstrated that the colour contrast between the plate and food can significantly alter choice of portion size . To test this color contrast effect, Wansink and van Ittersum set up a study during a college reunion. 50 attendees were randomly handed either a red or white plate and asked to serve themselves either tomato or white pasta sauce at a buffet. After service the researchers secretly weighed each portion. Interestingly, guests who has low contrast food (so red sauce on a red plate) served themselves 22% more pasta than those who had high contrast food (white sauce on a red plate). That is a huge difference in intake, simply caused by colour-contrast between the dinnerware and the food. We can use these studies to help achieve our food goals.
If you want to impress your friends with a dish you slaved over, make it nice to look at! If you want to eat more greens, use a green plate! If you want to reduce portion size, use a plate that contrasts with the colour of the meal. Or you simply cook with a variety of colours to make the flavours combinations seem more intense. That was the thinking behind my latest meal – some beautiful colours on a background to make it pop. It is really healthy and fresh but still packed with flavour. I can’t tell if it was because of the colours or they actually just tasted really nice, but who cares it was delicious either way! Pistachio crusted tuna with pineapple and chilli salsa:
Tuna steak (1 per person)
1 teaspoon mustard
1 red chilli
1 red onion
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon olive oil
1. Lightly sear the tuna on a griddle pan with a splash of olive oil for 1-2 mins until the sides are sealed. Season with salt and pepper
2. Meanwhile crush the pistachios in a food processor until you get fine crumbs
3. Take it off the heat and spread mustard round the sides. Cover with pistachios, pressing them in so they stick.
4. Drizzle olive oil over the tuna and Cook in the oven on 180 for 5mins
5. For the salsa, finely chop the pineapple, chilli, red onion and cucumber and mix in a bowl with fish sauce, ginger, lime/lemon juice olive oil, salt and pepper
6. Slice the tuna and serve on top of the salsa.