Science Book a Day Interviews John McQuaid


Special thanks to John McQuaid for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat

John McQuaid has written about topics such as city-destroying super-termites, the slow collapse of fishing communities, hurricane levee engineering, mountaintop removal coal mining, and the global flower business for publications including Smithsonian magazine, The Washington Post, Wired,, EatingWell magazine and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He is the co-author of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms. His work has won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. – From John’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Tasty?

Since they were very small, my two teenaged children have been picky eaters. That is not unusual, but the frustrating thing was, their pickiness did not overlap. My son preferred spicy, provocative flavors, such as super-hot chili peppers and limes. My daughter preferred very bland, comfort foods – white foods – mac and cheese, rice, chicken, mashed potatoes. Making dinners that could please everybody was a real challenge. So I began to wonder, why did these taste differences exist, what did they mean? Ordinarily for such explanations you look to genes or environment, but obviously they had similar genes, and were living in the same environment. So it only led to more questions, which seemed like it would make an interesting book.

#2 – You explore the notion of the ‘regions’ of our tongue. Why has this idea persisted for so long?

This map was used to teach schoolchildren about the sense of taste. It showed the tongue divided into different taste-detecting regions – sweet at the tip, bitter at the back, salty and sour on the sides. But it was wrong – based on a now century-old study that was misinterpreted and exaggerated a few decades later, as in in a game of “telephone,” until it became the conventional wisdom. But molecular biology has shown that the tongue is not divided up like this – tastebuds, no matter where they are, detect all the basic tastes. Still, the tongue map has persisted, because it has a certain gut-level appeal that is difficult to debunk.

#3 – Why is our sense of taste and smell so unexamined compared to hearing and sight?

Since the ancient Greek philosophers, vision and hearing have been exalted as the senses that allow us to navigate the world, to communicate, and to reach for the sublime via works of art and music. Taste and smell – the two main components of flavor – were considered base senses. They were associated with eating and thus necessary for survival, but could also lead to overindulgence and gluttony if not controlled. These attitudes persist today, even in the sciences. Also, it’s just harder to study taste and smell; since the sensations they produce are internal, subjective, and hard to measure compared to those of sound or light.

#4 – Is our understanding of taste changing? Is so, how?

Fortunately, the obstacles to the study of taste (and smell, and more broadly, flavor) are rapidly falling. The field of genetics has opened up the study of taste genes. Functional MRI scanners make it possible to map the complex neural circuitry of taste and flavor sensations. These in turn are showing that taste is a more complex phenomenon than thought. The sensations involve complex signaling between the mouth, gut, and brain. Taste receptors are being discovered all over the body, serving different purposes. No one knows yet how all these things fit together.

#5 – You talk about ‘soylent’. What is it? And do you think it can ever live up to the promises around it?

Soylent is a milkshake-like drink formulated by Rob Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley software engineer who found eating regular meals to be an annoying distraction. A certain amount of Soylent per day supposedly fills all nutritional needs. I think the Soylent diet can work for some people. But most of us enjoy eating. We are programmed to like variety in food – in type, in flavor, in texture – and derive a lot of pleasure from it, so it’s hard to give up, even if it buys you more hours in the day.

[Image Credit: Hannah McQuaid–contact.html ]


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