Fun food fact of the week: Why do some things change the way foods taste?

Brushing your teeth or eating pineapple or artichoke can drastically change the way foods taste.
Brushing your teeth or eating pineapple or artichoke can drastically change the way foods taste.

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We’ve all been there before: You brush your teeth to freshen up for a night out and gag on your first shot of vodka — not because of the alcohol, but because your orange juice chaser tastes like snake venom. Or you enjoy a refreshing bowl of pineapple only to find that your taste buds are shredded for the next 18 hours. Have you ever noticed that eating a fresh artichoke makes all other foods taste cloyingly sweet? Yes, brushing your teeth is great for your oral health and general social acceptance, and eating your fruits and vegetables will make you grow big and strong, but why do these foods make things taste so awful?

This question can be answered by simple science. Let’s start with toothpaste.

Toothpaste contains sodium lauryl ether sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate, both of which cause toothpaste’s foamy qualities when you brush your teeth. The two function as surfactants that lower the surface tension on your teeth and tongue, allowing debris and grime to be brushed away. However, they also have nasty side effects that cause food to taste far less palatable. First, these ingredients suppress taste bud receptors that perceive sweetness. Second, their surfactant qualities break down phospholipid fat molecules, which usually coat your tongue to protect it from overwhelmingly bitter tastes. The combination of suppressed sweetness and enhanced bitterness explains why drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth tastes like ingesting rancid bile.

So how do you maintain your personal hygiene and continue to enjoy the flavors of otherwise delicious foods? You can brush your teeth after eating. Also, there are SLES-free toothpastes on the market that will leave your taste buds unaffected and squeaky clean (though far less frothy). You can also try clearing away the toothpaste residue by eating nonsweet foods such as bread or crackers and cross your fingers that it does the trick before you go for that refreshing glass of OJ (or tequila sunrise).

What about pineapple? While some are more sensitive than others, many people experience a burning, prickly sensation after eating pineapple, so much so that it can destroy your taste buds for the remainder of the day. The suspect is a protease enzyme in pineapple called bromelain that breaks down proteins. In fact, it is often used as a meat tenderizer or in marinades. Unfortunately, it is also responsible the prickly sensation people experience while eating pineapple. How do you avoid this tastebud-ruiner? Most of the bromelain is contained in the core of the pineapple, so try to avoid eating this part. Also, with time or cooking, the enzyme breaks down, which is why canned pineapple does not induce this sensation. Instead of eating your fresh fruit right away, cut it up and let it sit out overnight to lessen the attack on your taste buds. Or you can take the nutritionally beneficial route of restricting your pineapple-eating to pineapple upside-down cake and fruit cocktail.

After all of this depressing news about things that make foods taste like poison, are there any foods that actually enhance flavors? For many of us, it would be a dream come true if all foods tasted sweet. Look no further than the artichoke. Have you ever noticed that after eating a fresh artichoke, even a sip of water tastes sugary? As it turns out, this is due to a chemical reaction from two chemicals found in artichokes, cholorgenic acid and cynarin. Cyanarin in particular inhibits taste buds that detect sweet flavors. Therefore, any food or drink consumed after eating an artichoke will wash away the cyanarin, causing your taste buds to detect an extreme contrast in sweetness, which your brain perceives as an overwhelmingly sweet taste. Artichokes may not be able to make vegetables taste like candy, but they can be used to mask slightly unpleasant flavors like, say, vegetables, toothpaste-induced bitter orange juice or post-pineapple prickle-mouth.

Photo credit: Orofacial, Micaela Vega and foodiesathoome.com via Creative Commons.

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