Food Rules!

Food Rules! While you are enjoying your holiday feast today, did you wonder why some flavors come together like a match made in heaven? Wine and cheese. Tomato and basil. Green eggs and ham. Okay, maybe not the last. A new study released in Nature investigates the science behind “The flavor network and principles of food pairing”. (Do you think field trips to restaurants were part of the study?).

Hypothesis: Ingredients sharing flavor compounds taste better together than ingredients that do not. Currently held in vogue by many chefs and food scientists, this has led to new pairings of white chocolate and caviar, as they share trimethylamine and other flavor compounds, and of chocolate and blue cheese that share at least 73 flavor compounds (Chocolate, anyone?). Checkout so you can experiment for yourself.

Method and Analysis: Scientists used >56,000 recipes taken from three popular sites,, (both American based) and (Korean). Each ingredient had on average 51 flavor compounds (previously identified by food chemists). They then constructed a flavor network in which any two nodes (ingredients) were connected if they shared flavors. The more flavors shared, the thicker the connecting line. Only statistically significant links are shown (figure).

Results: Network analysis showed that North American and Western European cuisines do indeed contain ingredients with many shared flavors. This was traced to abundant use of milk, butter, cocoa, vanilla,cream, and egg. Unexpectedly the opposite is true for East Asian cuisine! Asian food relies heavily on soy, ginger, scallions, pork and cayenne, ingredients that share very few flavor compounds. The study also identified “flavor principles”, or the most distinctive or authentic flavors of each culture: North American food relies heavily on dairy products, eggs and wheat; by contrast, East Asian cuisine is dominated by plant derivatives like soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice and ginger. (Okay, we knew this already 😉 Also, South European cuisine is closer to Latin American in its flavor profiles whereas Western European food is similar to North American.

Food for thought: As any good scientist knows, the discussion has to include evolution and fitness 😉 The copy-mutate model : each ingredient is assigned a random fitness value, which represents the ingredient’s nutritional value, availability, or flavor. For example, some ingredients are selected because of their antimicrobial properties. The mutation phase of the model replaces “less fit” ingredients with fitter ones. Meanwhile, the copy mechanism keeps copying the founder ingredients (ingredients in early recipes) and makes them abundant in the recipes regardless of their fitness value. What do you think?

The paper is open access, do give it a read:

Higher Res Figure

For #ScienceSunday curated by Allison Sekuler and Robby Bowles , who probably have better things to do today.

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47 Responses to Food Rules!

  1. Very interesting. Putting this on my reading list.

  2. Thanks. This is fantastic!

  3. I wonder if I can use this to figure out the perfect spice melange.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful giftRajini Rao, alas I must set it aside for further perusal as I have much overindulged, thus my powers of concentration have been reduced to damn near nil.

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    Suhail Manzoor , given the very heavy use of spices in Indian cuisine, it would have been great if they had included South Asian recipes. We could have concocted new fangled combinations and passed ourselves off as chefs. Look at the close pairing of onion and garlic with meat. Strict Hindu vegetarians (orthodox Brahmins, like my late grandparents) avoided these because of their association with meat..(now scientifically validated by shared flavors! haha). In fact, I had never eaten garlic until my 20’s!

  6. I think there is a basic error in this project because it assumes that ” one size fits all”… that all humans in all cultures and climates will enjoy and prefer the same combinations of tastes… Like Chinese medicine ,Ayurveda the taste is determined by it’s basic elements and compared to individuals and their basic elements and energies to find the complementary equations…Why would a person in the Himalayas like the same taste as a person in the Andes just because the live in the same elevation??? It is not logical…

  7. The evil pentagram of mushrooms!

  8. Randy Rasmusson Because the person from the Andes and the person from the Himalayas have the same taste buds. They are humans. Or are there records of mutations/adaptations of taste buds?

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Randy Rasmusson – The paper uses scientific process to look for evidence-based connections in the food we eat. The power of statistical analysis , not assumption is at work here 🙂 Read the article, they address the types of issues you raise. For example, “although many factors such as colors, texture, temperature, and sound play an important role in food sensation, palatability is largely determined by flavor, representing a group of sensations including odors (due to molecules that can bind olfactory receptors), tastes (due to molecules that stimulate taste buds), and freshness or pungency (trigeminal senses). Therefore, the flavor compound (chemical) profile of the culinary ingredients is a natural starting point for a systematic search for principles that might underlie our choice of acceptable ingredient combinations.”

    They also go on to say, “However, our hypothesis is that, given the large number of recipes we use in our analysis (56,498), such factors can be systematically filtered out, allowing for the discovery of patterns that may transcend specific dishes or ingredients.”

    In any case, what they find empirically, is that N. American and W. European cuisines use flavor paired ingredients, E. Asian foods do not. Why the preference? That’s a different question, no?

  10. Blair Warner says:

    Very interesting. I am going to look into this deeper. thanks.

  11. It is a little like putting on orange colored glasses and setting out to prove the world is orange. After thousands of years and billions of humans if there were ideal combinations of food there would be the same menu everywhere… You cant even get identical twins to agree on this.

  12. Blair Warner says:

    Randy, of course there are different taste buds, and different cultures who are USED TO certain foods and combinations, but I bet if a study could be done of 1000 babies from all the major cultures and regions that you would not find any correlation with race or region, only different preferences based on different taste buds. Just say’n.

  13. If you are betting on a study that has not been done then … I call your bluff….prove it and then demonstrate it in practice.

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    Ishan Goswami , click on the link I provided in the comment box near the top or in the body of the text. Click again on Fig 2 that comes up for an enlarged version. It should be quite clear.

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    Randy Rasmusson , since you have an alternate hypothesis, namely “taste is determined by it’s basic elements and compared to individuals and their basic elements and energies to find the complementary equations”, why don’t you prove it? It will be quite an interesting study I’m sure. How do you measure a person’s energy to find the “complementary equation”. Do you have an energy meter? 🙂

  16. Basic Ayurveda tell us us that the 6 tastes are made from the 5 elements…Also that the three basic energes at work in the universe are also med up of the 5 elements…these energies exiast in people as well as different foods. This leads us to the understanding how the six tastes affect each individual, and a substance can be determined to affect that individual based on its taste.

    Diagnosing ( measuring) an individuals energy has been taught and handed down for several thousand years using technology that would have been discarded a long time ago if it id not work. Because it is not taught in the western world does not negate it.

    Before Marco Polo ” discovered” the orient ,meat could not be preserved except by drying it…. when he returned with Black Pepper it became the most “valuable substance in the world”…

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Thank you, Randy Rasmusson , I do know about basic Ayurveda. But how are you going to test this Ayurvedic hypothesis? Other than some ancient book telling you so, how do you know that there are 5 “elements” and 3 “energies” and 6 “tastes”. Do you just believe what you read? This is a science forum, not fantasy. By the way, do you know why pepper preserves meat? Because it is an antimicrobial and the mechanism of action has been described using science not superstition or hearsay. I’m sorry that we do not speak the same language.

  18. Some of have had years of experience not just some ancient books… and nothing is more convincing that success with “incurable problems”. By the way, do YOU just believe what YOU read? Ignorance is not an excuse for your limitations or assumptions…

    Five hundred years ago what was the extent of your science… for that matter two or three hundred years ago?

    I could waste my time quoting from Energy, the Subtle Concepts, The discovery of Feynman’s blocks

    from Leibniz to Einstein by Jennifer Coopersmith to point this out if I was interested in a discussion conducted with

    out respect and / or open minds

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    Randy Rasmusson , I believe in data and testable hypotheses. I believe if someone can gauge my “energy”, they’d better be able to have an instrument that can be calibrated based on laws of physics. If you don’t believe modern science, feel free to say so, but don’t criticize something that you cannot comprehend either. I’m pretty sure you did not even bother to read the Nature article before criticizing it, isn’t that right?

    500 years ago, people did not know what we do now, knowledge has progressed in leaps and bounds. We could not send a mission to Mars, we could not put in an artificial heart valve, we could not fly across continents nor manipulate sound or radio waves. Neither could we know about the molecular biology of taste receptors or have access to 50,000 recipes in a database 500 years ago. Ayurveda was fine for the middle ages. We’ve come a long way since then.

  20. Great share, I share it in my Google page Ciências Sociais , Thank you.

  21. Rajini Rao says:

    Edgar Müller , the article doesn’t address all that, so we need to be careful not to over interpret the study. It simply looks at a large database of recipes, presumably these exist because people have tried and tested them, and looks at flavor connections within ingredients. Do the ingredients share similar chemicals or not. That’s all! I agree, our tastes can be quite individual and change over time 🙂

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Tony Bryson , LOL on the bacon, and yes..I seem to be a glutton for punishment. Wonder what the flavor profile of that is? Now, I shall retire and go watch A Christmas Story (what else?).

  23. It seems that anything proven may be unproven over time. Conflicting ideas lead to a synthesis as more information becomes available. A perfect example >>>nature/nurture. Never been proven one way or t’ other. I find this interesting Rajini Rao and am embarrassed by the behavior of such louts when discussing the unknown.

  24. +Edgar Miller You may be correct.

    There have been studies in Zoos about how wild animals accept food that they are not familiar with… When they will not eat man made substitutes some times coloring the food to look like the natural food or mixing it with the natural food gets the animals to try it accidently… After they have eaten it for a short time and the body has sensed the superior qualities the animals prefer it over the native food… they developed a taste… this is especially obvious with carnivorous birds and mammals… they will pass up meat for dog or lion food… after they have developed a taste for it.

  25. + Rajani Rao

    What anyone believes is not an issue. It is egotistical and unscientific to say “they better have an instrument”… In the 1980’s in California it was illegal to practice acupuncture and a doctor could lose his license even if he had been trained in China…Then a doctor made acupuncture on a patient while giving him a cat scan and noticed changes in the brain as a result of the acupuncture…Suddenly it was ‘Discovered that Acupuncture worked” … thousands of years of experience in China notwithstanding…

    In 1992 the New England Journal of Medicine made a study or 25000 Americans to learn how they spent their MONEY on health care…. Shockingly 25% of a 12Billion dollar per year industry was going to the pockets of “alternative Health care

    practioners”… Within weeks medical students were making inquires and requests for training in Ayurvedic Pulse Diagnosis. They were willing to pay for this technology out of their pockets because the Medical universities did not offer it… they wanted a piece of the Four Billion dollars that was going out the door…. Also acupuncture was legalized in the state of California…

    At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century America was the leading research and publishing community in homeopathic medicine…. Women were dying from blood poisoning in NYC because in the sewing industry they hurt their fingers with dirty needles…. They were using “ patient medicines” sold on the street for pain… to regulate the use of these drugs laws were passed that opium and cocaine could only be sold in pharmacies with medical prescriptions…

    The pharmaceutical industry took control of medicine… within 10 years all classes of Homeopathy were phased out because there was no money in Homeopathic medicines even though it works…

    By the early 1960’s the last of the old doctors who knew how to use Homeopathic remedies had retired…homeopathic proving were Scientific and American books from this era were used in Europe and South America and India. Vibration medicine was killed in America… but not in the rest of the world where it is practiced until this day…

    Just because you were never trained in Pulse diagnosis does not mean that those who were do not know how to celebrate their instruments… your limitations are no excuse for unscientific lack of open-mindedness

  26. “Prove it and demonstrate it in practice” is the challenge I believe you laid before our host Randy Rasmusson , yet you feel you are above this. Rajini Rao never referred to these findings as fact. I believe she said hypothesis, if I’m not mistaken. Though I understand your position and agree with what you are saying, that science closes it’s eyes to facts that are not convenient, your approach is such that casts a cynical pall on alternative medicine as being quackery. It doesn’t matter what you believe, but rather what is the truth. Open minds can be created with polite reasoning and fact expressed at the right moment. Seeing as how this is a discussion about taste and food, not Big Pharma and Corporate Greed, I fear you have ruined any chance you had at displaying your “beliefs” in a positive light.

  27. So what is is that you understand? Enlighten us. I understand that if one is insulting and rude that one lacks bodichitta and brings dishonor to oneself, one”s family, one”s country.

  28. Randy Rasmusson cant u just agree to disagree? and what does acupuncture have to do with taste buds? o.O anyways its Christmas enjoy the holiday without fighting… my gosh…

    Merry Christmas!!

  29. Can you imagine a tongue acupuncture treatment? 8/

  30. Lindy Asimus says:

    Actually, this comes a few days after I read an article that talked about the difference between western and eastern cooking – where it was argued that western cooking pairs flavours that are in harmony, while eastern cultures tend toward for contrasting flavours.

    In fact it was the same article but the post here seems to suggest something other than what I took from the original article.

  31. C. Michael Croston ahaha lol that just sounds painful!!

  32. Alicia Noel says:

    This is a beautiful piece of science. Thank you! Now I want to go cook some more and mix flavors.

  33. Norman M. says:

    Thanks, will look into universal objective of “flavor”…

  34. Jo Go says:

    All subjective. Our taste buds tend to change over time, and with illnesses. Regarding food and pairings, just have fun with the damn things.

  35. Hmm… many flavors in these discussions too.

    1 The Japanese can not pronounce the L sound the way others can do. Apparently since the sound does not exist, they use R. Their R sound is not like that of others. It is difficult to reproduce that quickly. We are not used to hearing it. I don’t expect a Carnatic music enthusiast to be as enthusiastic about a western classic.

    2 A person brought up on Amul cheese (a Indian diary brand), was heard commenting he did not like Swiss cheese! He could not stand the smell. Can any one beat that?

    3 I went to an Indian restaurant in Minneapolis USA. It was rated the best Indian restaurant. I was disappointed, but the local population praised it.

    Sound, Smell, and Taste are very subjective. Perceptions of what is good and bad can be biassed with what we have been brought up with.

    The study presented is interesting and I think it is worth replicating this with a wider repertoire of flavors, such as South Asian Flavours. I also feel the strength of the linkages may differ with the target population (geographic, or according to what they eat regularly). The map should could be considered valid for the geography where the study has been done. This could be a useful hypothesis for chefs, and food enthusiasts to pursue their studies.

    If I look at it from a science point of view, I can appreciate formulation of a hypothesis on some basis, and a scientific study of relationships. In the absence of any other basis, people would be ready to try out thoughts triggered by this. Time should temper or improve such studies.

  36. Razak Zainal says:

    orange juice and vodka…nice combo..

  37. E.E. Giorgi says:

    cool, thanks for sharing this!

  38. Razak Zainal says:

    somehow juices tastes better with a dose of vodka…orange, pineapple,tomato, cranberries etc…

  39. david olick says:

    Randy Rasmusson I find it interesting that you mention scientific studies. Rajini Rao did not say your method was absolutely invalid, she said that the only way to prove or disprove your claims is if you could measure the relationships that you said were important. If what you said is true, the acupuncture study PROVED that it has a measurable effect on the body (and I assume an effect that is positive).

    If what you say is true about food, then there has to be ways to measure it for scientific study. She asked if you could measure these things and all you said is that there’s a book and you did not offer any concrete way of measurement. This is the problem with your theory and what Rajini Rao was trying to get you to either understand or respond by filling in her gap of knowledge.

    Science is grounded in measuring things and using math to “prove” or “disprove” a hypothesis. If you can’t measure it, the hypothesis cannot be judged true or untrue. People will often bring up things like “the invisible pink unicorn” (how do we know the invisible unicorn is pink?) or “russell’s teapot” (a teapot in outer space is, for all intents and purposes, undetectable and the idea is essentially unprovable).

    If you can’t prove or disprove something, it should not be regarded by anyone as true. You bring up acupuncture, but I’ll bring up how people believed and practiced bloodletting for centuries until it was proven harmful. The same goes for how people used to add radioactive radium into many things such as food and toothpaste… and this was largely touted as beneficial and something that gives you energy (like caffeine is used today). Of course we also know now that radioactive substances give us cancer and are bad for our health.

    Uninformed thought is very dangerous and you shouldn’t just dismiss what Rajini was trying to get you to understand. As for homeopathy, I believe many of their claims have been tested and proven false so you may want to look into that. You really should be more careful about unscientific claims that you seem very passionate about.

    Science is a very useful tool and, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be well understood by a very very large portion of people living today.

  40. Nzard drazN says:

    interesting article and discussion, thanks! #mindblown. Now, does anybody has any idea how do I share this whole post on Twitter? #G+noob

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