By Jonathan Wright, Linda Larsen

Flavor in food is what makes eating enjoyable. But flavor doesn’t come only from the reaction between foods and the taste buds on your tongue. Taste is only a small part of the flavor equation. The other important characteristics of flavor include aroma, color, temperature, and something called mouthfeel, which is the texture of food.

When you embark on your clean eating lifestyle, you’ll notice some changes in how food tastes.

Your tongue has five different types of taste receptors that are bundled into buds and that react with the ions and molecules in food and then send messages to your brain through chemical reactions. Sour and salty taste receptors detect ions, while the others detect molecules. The five types of taste receptors are

  • Sour: The acid in foods stimulates these taste receptors, which have channels that pick up the hydronium ions found in foods like lemon juice and balsamic vinegar.
  • Salty: The sodium ions in food stimulate these taste receptors.
  • Bitter: G-protein receptors on specialized taste buds perceive alkaloids (certain amino acids or proteins) in food, which cause bitter flavors, and directly activate neurons in the brain. Human bodies are hard-wired to detect bitter taste because many poisonous plants are bitter.
  • Sweet: Hydroxyl groups on sugar molecules stimulate your sweet taste receptors by using a protein called gustducin, which prompts reactions on the tongue that the brain recognizes as sweet.
  • Umami or meaty: The glutamic acid salts, which are part of the amino acids found in meats, cheeses, and some vegetables, stimulate these taste receptors.

Note: Spicy or hot flavors don’t stimulate any of the taste receptors. The so-called spicy flavor is actually the perception of pain, which the nerve endings just below the taste buds detect. That’s why your tongue takes a few seconds to register the spiciness and heat when you bite into a jalapeƱo pepper.

A single taste bud has dozens of taste-receptor cells that include all five of the basic taste sensations. (Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t grouped around the tongue in separate sections.) With the addition of salt, sugar, and flavor enhancers, processed foods are formulated to stimulate salty, sweet, and umami taste receptors, which are collectively called appetitive tastes. The threshold for tasting these substances is very low.

Clean foods activate your taste receptors without any help from artificial ingredients. Their flavors are much more pure. After just a short period of time on the eating clean diet, you’ll start to recognize the clean taste of natural foods. The table lists some clean foods with the five basic taste attributes plus spicy.

Flavorful Clean Foods
Food Sweet Sour Salty Bitter Umami Spicy
Bananas, mangos, melons, honey, agave nectar X
Yogurt, pomegranates, tamarind X
Kelp, pickled foods X
Spinach and dark greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, celery, eggplant, grapefruit X
Mushrooms X
Peppers, herbs, spices, ginger, radishes, raw onions and garlic, horseradish X
Apples, oranges, strawberries X X
Cooked onions and garlic, carrots, tomatoes X X
Lemons, limes X X
Tea, vinegar X X
Mint X X
Kale, asparagus X X
Meat stocks, lean meats, soy products, nuts, shellfish X X
Kohlrabi X X
Miso X X
Natural cheeses X X X

Combining the foods in the table and choosing foods that incorporate more than one flavor can enhance your eating experience.

Even though junk foods are designed to hit all the right taste buds, you can use a biological advantage to appreciate clean and healthy whole foods: More than 80 percent of what you perceive as flavor is actually aroma. Processed foods include artificial ingredients that mimic aromas of clean foods. But clean foods are full of natural aromas that make their flavors much more complex and satisfying than their artificial counterparts.

Don’t forget the important impact that color, texture, and temperature have on the flavor experience. To use your natural flavor-detecting abilities to fully appreciate clean foods, pay attention to these three flavor factors and try out the following tips:

  • Eat more slowly. When you chew your food slowly, you give your taste buds time to detect the different flavors and aromas being released. Not only is gulping down food bad for your digestion, but it also keeps you from experiencing all the flavors natural foods have to offer. Chewing also releases vapors into the back of your mouth, which stimulate your sense of smell. Chewing food for a longer period of time releases more flavor.
  • Put away the salt shaker. Many people have become used to the flavor of salt. As a result, they need more and more salt to satisfy the salty appetite center of the brain. Foods may taste bland at first on the eating clean plan, but your taste buds will gradually adjust to less sodium and the natural flavors of the foods will become more prominent.

There is an exception to this rule: If your blood pressure is low (100/60 or less on either reading), you may have weak adrenal function and need salt. These people feel better and are healthier with more added salt, not less. If that’s you, check with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in natural, nutritional medicine before making a decision to cut back on salt.

  • Smell your food before you taste it. Breathe in over your plate before you start eating. Notice the rich smell of meats, the clean spiciness of a vegetable salad, and the sweet, complex aroma of herbs and spices.
  • Plan meals with different textures. Texture is an important part of flavor assessment. For example, if you make a whole meal of foods with soft textures, it will seem less interesting and more bland. Try to incorporate crisp, chewy, smooth, soft, and hard textures in your meals.
  • Incorporate as many colors as possible on your plate. You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth! No wonder your meal seems more appetizing when it contains reds, greens, browns, and yellows than when it’s all beige or brown. Biting into a deep-red strawberry is more satisfying than biting into one that’s pale and anemic-looking. As an added bonus, eating more colorful foods means giving your body more nutrients.
  • Plan meals with different temperatures. The contrast between hot and cold enhances the eating experience. Think about eating some warm grilled bread topped with a cold tomato salsa.