Weird But True Food Facts

We all recognize the role of smell in whetting our appetites, conjuring emotions and stirring memories, yet those little buds on our tongues still get most of the credit for detecting taste. According to researchers in the field of neurogastronomy, however, we have it backward.

Taste buds evolved to detect basic notes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (the savory flavor of mushroom or soy sauce) to help us distinguish energy-rich carbohydrates, find essential salts, test foods for ripeness, detect toxins and identify proteins [source: Levin].

But it’s the sensation of smell — specifically, the retronasal smells that waft into the nasal cavity from the mouth as we savor food — that forms the fuller picture of flavor in our brains. Smell is so nuanced that scientists have compared it to sight for the way it forms “pictures” of millions of flavor combinations and determines resemblances among them. Research has further linked the sense of smell to psychological well-being and neuroplasticity [source: Marano].

Molecular gastronomists, who try to understand the physics and chemistry of food for artistic and culinary effects, make careful use of odorants and aromatics in their creations, but the interactions between saliva and food make isolating the key smell-ecular elements difficult [source: This].

Oh, well. There’s always marketing.

A Food by Any Other Name

Foods are known by many names. Some refer to subtle distinctions, as coriander and cilantro refer to the seeds and the vegetative pieces, respectively, of the Coriandrum sativum plant. Others might reveal cases of mistaken identity, as when many Americans each Thanksgiving mislabel sweet potatoes as yams, when in fact they are two separate plants [source: North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission].

Then there are those foods that assume new monikers for marketing purposes. Canola (a portmanteau of “Canada ” and “ola” for oil) is actually a specially bred rapeseed oil rebranded to avoid negative associations with the word “rape” (rape, or Brassica napus, is a plant in the mustard family) and possibly to distance it from earlier versions of rapeseed oil, which were toxic to humans [source: Mikkelson]. Kiwifruit is not from New Zealand at all — it’s a Chinese gooseberry rebranded by exporters to avoid negative associations in Cold War American markets. It’s also not a gooseberry, so it’s just as well that they changed its label [source:Ministry for Culture and Heritage].

The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) was renamed “Chilean sea bass” to better whet customer appetites and was so successful that it now faces overfishing, despite not being a sea bass at all [source: Fabricant]. For similar reasons, restaurant customers now know the “slimehead” (Hoplostethus atlanticus) as the far more appealing “orange roughy” [source: Allen].

A rose is a rose is a rose, but cheap hake sells better as scarlet snapper [source: Jacquet and Pauly].