For sensory science expert John Prescott it's a matter of taste



A LONG time ago in a galaxy far, far away I met Australian psychologist and sensory science expert John Prescott.

Back then I was a baby correspondent for Britain's New Scientist magazine and Prescott was a researcher with the CSIRO's now defunct Sensory Research Centre in Sydney.

He'd just finished a study into the reasons people willingly subject themselves to the often excruciating, sweat-inducing, mouth-burning pain of a hot spicy meal.
The answer was the addictive power of capsaicin, the colourless, odourless, tasteless but painful substance in chilli. Turns out it triggers the trigeminal nerve that releases endorphins, the body's natural painkiller. So, literally, the more you eat the better you feel.

In the story I wrote for the magazine, Prescott warned the pleasurable effect can be addictive. "The first bite of mild curry leads to the vindaloo." he cautioned. The story went global.

So I knew when Prescott's new book,
Taste Matters: Why We Like the Foods We Do (Reaktion Books, 208pp, $34.99), arrived it would be, yes, hot. It is.

As the title suggests, Prescott pulls together an enormous body of research to answer the basic questions about who likes or dislikes what and why. Evolution, culture, hedonism, disgust, inheritance, diversity and sweet, sour, bitter, salty and the mushroom-like taste of umami all play a role.

Instead of diving in at the beginning, try perusing the index for tasty snippets. Exercise-induced taste aversion, Chinese restaurant syndrome and food neophobia sit comfortably with Elizabeth David, Brillat-Savarin, Charles Darwin and, of course, chocolate. Bon appetite.