Food historian digs deep in an effort to enhance flavor and nutrition
CLEMSON – An old nursery rhyme has a famous line that says “sugar and spice and everything nice.”
But when it comes to America’s eating habits, sugar and spice aren’t necessarily nice. In fact, the obsession with sweet, salty, sour, bitter and tongue-searing spices has helped to perpetuate a degeneration in the quality of some grains and fruits.
Flavor has traditionally come from the intrinsic content of the food itself. But some believe that it has been increasingly replaced by additives that might be lacking in nutritional value.
“A prime example is the extent to which some types of wheat have been bred so that their taste is secondary to harvestability, resistance to diseases, tolerance to heat/drought and ‘processability,’” South Carolina food historian David Shields said during a recent appearance at the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University. “The taste of grain was valued by the people who grew it and the people who ate it. But especially over the past couple generations I contend that wheat has lost some of its wholesomeness and flavor.”
For much of human history, flavor was a high priority for people who selected and collected grains and fruits. However, the introduction of spices several centuries ago began to shake up longstanding customs. As evidence, Shields referred to a 2015 book by Mark Schatzker titled “The Dorito Effect,” in which the author poses these questions: Has the American mouth become hijacked by the ‘more is better’ principle? More sweetness? More saltiness? More fattiness? More sourness? And hotter spices?
“Schatzker produced a chronicle of per-capita spice consumption in the United States and noticed that since 1915 until the end of the 20th century, it rose 500 percent,” said Shields, Carolina Distinguished Professor and author of “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.” “Of course, part of this is due to increases in our population, but there is no doubt that spice is popping up in almost everything.”
This phenomenon was given birth in the 16th century when an explosion of world crop exploration uncovered a variety of spices, spurring a global trade system based on substances that provoked intense bodily responses. Sugar, spice, chocolate, tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco made people rich, but also began to change much of the world’s eating and drinking habits.
“The effects of these substances could be addictive,” said Shields, whose talk was titled “The Future of Flavor.” “They were not necessary for nourishment. But they fooled the body into craving them. Their tastes and effects were intense, unlike the modulated flavor of landrace grains, which are grains that have been cultivated through traditional farming practices for many years. Over the last few centuries, the market for sweetness, hotness, saltiness, fattiness or caffeine has driven food consumption and has influenced what has been grown.”
This anomaly has not gone unnoticed by Shields and others who think like him. In the 1970s, Harvard scientist Howard Moskowitz proved that – when it comes to sugar and spices – too much of either can be negatively life-altering.
“Moskowitz determined that there are thresholds – the bliss point – beyond which increasing sweetness, saltiness or spiciness diminishes the effect of the pleasure,” said Shields, who is chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. “Has the constant exposure to saltier, sweeter, fattier, spicier foods caused most American consumers to lose the capacity to sense subtlety?”
Shields believes that the bliss point might have been pushed beyond its limit. As a result, the creators of new processed foods are crafting products that have neutral or relatively tasteless nutritive dimensions.
“The landrace grains have receded from wholesomeness into tastelessness,” said Shields, who was hosted at Clemson by the university’s Advanced Plant Technology Program. “The model now is to construct ‘commodity’ foods that are relatively flavorless and then infused with hot, sweet, salty, bitter, sour tastes. One of the more infamous insights of food modernism was made in the 1880s by David Wesson of Wesson Oil fame. He concluded that tasteless foods have an even greater potential for mass adoption than foods that have a lot of taste. If there is no taste, there are no grounds for objection.”
Shields said that “flavor chemists” – who explore the isolated chemical and synthetic means of producing products that will attract buyers – have played a relatively recent role in how food is processed and presented
“What they do is sometimes fascinating, sometimes complex – and they enable a wide variety of things,” Shields said. “We best know their work as creators of artificial sweeteners, snack foods, candies, sodas and other processed foods. But flavor chemists are masters of the extrinsic, while the greatest breeders of grains, fruits, and vegetables are masters of flavors that are inherent to the plant.”
“Waters inspired a rising generation of chefs who started to seriously inquire about the flavors of different varieties of vegetables, root vegetables, greens and grains,” Shields said. “And on a second front, biologists, anthropologists and physiologists began exploring the role of taste in determining nutrition in one’s environment. From the insect to the primate, taste has enabled creatures to recognize not only what was edible but what was nutritious in their landscape. Ancient humans hunted and foraged for food, and their ability to sort the palatable from the poisonous was key to their survival.”
At least one study has indicated that the senses of taste and smell among ancient humans were far more developed than those of their modern ancestors
“Alexander von Humboldt wandered the foothills of the Andes Mountains in the 1840s with a band of natives and noted that they could discriminate the 16 dominant trees in their forest by taste alone just by chewing on their bark. They did not have to see the bark,” Shields said. “They could smell game, including birds in the treetops. But when humans domesticated wild plants by keeping and planting the seeds of those that tasted best and those that grew the largest or had the earliest fruit, diet became fixed to agriculture. And consumption became substantially more concerned with just a handful of plants.”
When humans began to eat the same types of plants every day, they tended toward the types that were relatively bland and inoffensive. The wholesomeness of flavor became more important than its intensity and diversity.
“Because grains reproduce sexually and have a broad range of genetic and organismal diversity, the growers who were selecting and collecting seed chose what seemed most agreeable, healthful, digestible and sustainable,” Shields said. “Ancient grasses assumed marked family resemblances in quality, growth pattern and taste. These distinct strains developed over time by generations of cultivators are now known as ‘landraces.’ ”
Ironically, many 21st-century geneticists – in conjunction with high-tech plant breeders – are among those who have come to believe that ancient grains can play a role in the revival of venerable cuisines.
“Historians, breeders, growers and geneticists are determined to collect, characterize and improve all the surviving landrace grains pertinent to North American agriculture and culinary history,” Shields said. “Whether it’s Cherokee White Eagle Corn, Rhode Island White Cap Flint Corn or Purple Straw Wheat, we’re securing and improving them. These ancient tastes do matter. Good intrinsic flavor is more than some kind of an aesthetic ornament to a grain or vegetable. It is a human need and desire imprinted on the plant over hundreds of generations.”
Shields believes that an even more intensive study of the flavor of landrace grains should be undertaken as part of a cultural and culinary rejuvenation. He hopes that the acknowledgment of the flavors that are associated with the grains of the past will rapidly rise in consumer popularity.
“I think that human beings over the course of history have recognized the wholesomeness of taste and nutrition,” Shields said. “My hope is that all those fundamental old tastes that are legacies in ancient cultures are revived in the future, using the best ingenuity at our disposal to bring back more nuance and finesse to the flavor of our foods.”
Shields’ colleagues admire his grit, passion and determination.
“I was really honored to have David here at Clemson. He truly is a Renaissance man,” said Stephen Kresovich, Coker Chair and director of Clemson’s Institute of Translational Genomics. “David is well known around the state, around the region, and around the nation as a historian of agriculture and cuisine. He’s also an incredibly clever sleuth, and – lucky for us – he sweats the details.”