I Savour, Therefore I Am – A Unique Human Ability

By Cocoa Runners  ·  14th February 2021  ·  The Science of Chocolate

Amongst warm-blooded mammals, humans have a number of unique traits, including:

  1. We communicate with extensive vocabularies and a wide range of sound
  2. We run on two legs holding our heads high (birds aren’t mammals and lizards are cold-blooded)
  3. We can detect flavour via both our mouths and our noses (through our sense of smell)

All three of these traits are due to the structure of our mouths. And they all provide compelling reasons to savour craft chocolate. 

Read below for more details.  And also see below for some milk and dark pairings which demonstrate how the bliss point works and the delight of savouring.

Taste, Flavour, and the Structure of our Mouths

We (and other animals) detect taste through a series of receptors, largely in our mouths (but also in our guts).  Different animals have varying amounts and differing types of receptors – for example cats can’t detect sweetness, but are super sensitive to saltiness and water. 

But taste is only a part of the pleasures of eating. There is also chemesthesis (the delight of a spicy meal or a mouth puckering, astringent wine).  But for most of us the real joy is FLAVOUR (and for those who like spicy food, see here for more on chemesthesis and texture, mouthfeel etc — plus the perils of Anosmia and Parosmia in today’s Covid world)

FLAVOUR is different.  And humans are (almost) unique here. Very few animals can detect flavour other than by sniffing through their nose.  Humans are rare (and very fortunate) in that our mouths open up a pathway to our olfactory centre (aka our sense of smell) as we breathe. This is why when you have a cold, or hold your nose, you lose all sense of flavour (come to a tasting to find out more).

Dogs, cats and most animals have a highly developed sense of smell through their noses. In this sense they can detect “flavours”.  But almost all animals, other than humans, have a  “transverse lamina” which stops them being able to detect flavours once an item is in their mouth. Humans lack a transverse lamina.  So that means we can detect flavour through “retronasal olfaction”. (Note: the absence of this lamina, plus the structure of our tongue, explains too why we can talk, and how we can run upright. See here for a more detailed explanation.)

The Great News of Being Human and Savouring Flavours

This is GREAT NEWS.  It may even explain why we like, and discovered, cooking. Indeed many argue that this gave rise to our development and civilization, as cooked food is for the most part far more nutritionally efficient than uncooked, raw foods.

It also gives us one of life’s truly great pleasures – savouring food and drink. As we eat and drink, FLAVOURS are released through chewing, salivating, melting and swirling round our mouths. Flavour is a huge part of the pleasure of living. Eating and drinking should be about more than survival, nutrition and health.

And chocolate is FANTASTIC for savouring.  Like fine wine, chocolate has hundreds of different flavour volatiles and aromas.  And they develop (like a wave!) as you savour the chocolate.

And just to add to the fun, cocoa butter, the primary ingredient in most craft chocolate bars (there is more cocoa butter than cocoa solids in most cocoa beans), gives an amazing mouth texture.  So we also can luxuriate in the melt and mouthfeel as we savour.

So why do we scoff chocolate?

Yet all too often chocolate, in particular chocolate confectionery, is scoffed.  It is like a doughnut.  Or a pringle.  “Once you pop you can’t stop”.

This is because of another peculiarity of food and drink with humans – the so-called “Bliss Point”.  The “bliss point” was discovered (or rather articulated) in the 1970s by a food researcher called Howard Moskowitz, who worked out that if you combine sugar, salt and fat – plus a little texture – human beings just don’t know how to stop eating.  For anyone who has ever seen a Labrador attack food they’ll get the idea.  All too often with many fast foods you just want to keep eating more, more and more.  It’s hard to savour.

No plant, meat or fruit naturally contains a combination of sugar, salt and fat.  But we definitely can’t resist the combination – perhaps because it hearkens back to the first meal for most of us (mother’s milk).

If you check the ingredients of most confectionery, you’ll see the familiar list of “bliss point” ingredients.  And almost always the first ingredient will be sugar.  But check the ingredients of any craft chocolate bar (with only a handful of exceptions) and it should always be CHOCOLATE (or depending on the country, cocoa beans or cocoa butter. Labelling regulations are complex!)

Having said this, there is a good claim to be made that the world’s first milk chocolate bars, launched by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle back in the 1870s, were the first “bliss point” food.  Certainly their creation catalysed chocolate consumption with the creation of “bliss point” bars.  Unfortunately during the twentieth century chocolate has become more about confectionery, becoming merely another ingredient like sugar, vegetable fat or palm oils to “create” processed snacks and confectionery where the flavour of chocolate is deliberately flattened.

Indeed the BIG difference between a craft milk chocolate bar (and indeed any craft chocolate bar) and confectionery is that you can SAVOUR the Craft Chocolate.  The flavours will develop and emerge.  You can use our unique human ability to detect the evolution of different flavours as a bar melts in your mouth.  This doesn’t happen with confectionery. Confectionery, snacks and fast food are all about the first impression and initial sensation.  And you’ll continue to reach for more and more (just like Doritos, Pringles, doughnuts, etc.). You’ve been gamed.

Coming Up

We’ll explore this more in our Kids’ “Science of Chocolate” Tasting next Wednesday (and we talk about this in our regular Wednesday Virtual Tastings, too)

But if you want to savour and “try this at home”, please do!  See below for some milk chocolate bars that you can savour .. but you’ll also find hard not to have a second piece.  Then compare them to their dark siblings (we’ve picked bars that are made from the same beans – and are offering a small saving on these bundles).  And do download our “flavour wave” to help you articulate these flavours, tastes and textures.

As always, thank you for your support and please stay safe and sane.

Spencer, Simon, Lizzie, Harmony and James

Further Reading

In addition, we strongly recommend SMELLOSOPHY by A. S. Barwich