Why Our Foods Need to be Spicier

August 17, 2010

The world is indeed getting hotter, but we all knew that. It’s not global warming we’re talking about, but rather our desire for spiced-up foods.

The world is indeed getting hotter, but we all knew that. It’s not global warming we’re talking about, but rather our desire for spiced-up foods.

Just as children’s tastes change through the years, as we age, our taste profile shifts as well. But there’s plenty more that goes into the science of taste -- from gender to ethnicity to geography. Understanding the tastes of specific markets can help guide supermarkets in merchandising -- something we are all familiar with -- and keeping abreast of changing demographics across the country as well as in a particular marketplace is critical.

Dr. Marcia Levin Pelchat, associate member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, has penned half a dozen articles on the subject of taste from flavors and olfactory memory to food cravings in elderly adults. She’s studied people’s responses to novel foods, explaining that, 25 years ago, mango was one of those flavors that surprised her subjects.

Shifting ethnic populations around the globe are changing the flavors of countries. Take the U.K., for example, a population oft-depicted as having a bland diet, where a recent survey found that people in Britain are eating food that is 400 times hotter than what used to be eaten in the 1960s. The study by Tesco found that sales of spicy food have gone up 20 percent in the past year alone, and that the U.K. is the one country in Europe where most of the ultra-hot dishes are eaten.

The rise in spicier foods is attributed to both aging populations and shifting ethnic populations. Pelchat explained that as people age, their olfactory sense declines, but sensitivity to spice and sweetness is maintained. Therefore, older demographics are more satiated when foods are spicy or sweet. But, until recently, much of the elderly population had not been exposed to the breadth of flavors as today’s aging baby boomers. Recent research also shows sensitivities to hot and cold in the mouth are amplified as we age; so, while your grandmother craved foods that were hot in temperature, your aging mother may now say her food needs more flavor.

“There have been big changes in the U.S. in tastes and flavors,” she said. 

Recent generations’ exposure to more authentic global cuisines brought here by waves of immigrants has changed the way Americans perceive flavor. Pelchat explained that where you grow up is a predictor of what specific foods you like, how sweet you want your sweet foods and how salty you want your salty foods. Americans’ use of sweetness in sauces for savory foods -- ketchup and Thousand Island dressing, for example -- are inappropriate for many cultures. It’s an explanation, of sorts, for the increased acceptance of salsas, hot sauces and curries in everyday cuisine. Pelchat said supermarkets would benefit from not only understanding the demographic profile of their customer base, but reaching out to leaders in those ethnic groups to discover what and how they eat to better understand inventory and merchandising to those consumers.
She described how local supermarkets in her Philadelphia neighborhood took advantage of shifting demographics: “I know when my local supermarket redid its organization, it consulted with a local Jewish population to discuss what they wanted -- they now have a separate kosher meat and kosher sushi. And every year, they have gotten better and better at understanding what foods people want for Passover.”

Gender is another predictor of taste. The difference between men and women is, apparently, all in the smell. 

“Flavor is the combination of taste and smell. Those two are the major influences, and it’s pretty clear across the board that women are better at smelling than men. They tend to be more sensitive and they tend to better identify odor,” Pelchat revealed. “Women may also be more sensitive to bitters than men.”

Pelchat explained that this sensitivity could be an evolutionary one. It could stem from our female ancestors whose families’ lives depended on their sense of smell when gathering edible plants, to ensure that they didn’t select bitter herbs that could be poisonous. Interestingly, women of childbearing years are ultra-sensitive to smells and taste. Pelchat described their tastes as a ‘moving target.’