Friday, August 01, 2014

The relationship between surface area and flavor

When I was a boy, the school library had this very cool set of mini projectors. They were set upon desks pointed at a white panel covered from the overhead lights. The films were in these cool little cartridges that you just pop into the projector, turn it on and watch.

Well, one of my favorite films in the library illustrates what happens when you take a harmless powder like flour or cornstarch and blow it over a flame. There are numerous examples like this one on YouTube to demonstrate the effect. The principle demonstrated here is that with greater surface area exposed to air, the greater the energy released from ignition. This is a principle that has stuck with me for about 40 years now, and I have applied this principle to the joy of eating. 

Friends and family who know me well also know that I am a very patient and slow eater. Go to any gathering to sit at a nice meal with me and long after everyone else is done, I'm still patiently chewing my food. Yeah, that's me. I'm the last one to dessert.

I honestly don't know how I got started on chewing thoroughly and slowly. But there are several reasons that come to mind. First, I'm hard of hearing and the sound of the chewing just overwhelms what I'm hearing, so I chew slowly but firmly so as not to disturb my listening pleasure if there is any to be had in a noisy restaurant.

The next reason to come to mind is that food just tastes good. I enjoy my food and take my time while chewing. Chewing food thoroughly exposes more of the surface area of the food to my taste buds, so I get better access to the flavor of food by chewing my food completely. 

I think that our taste buds serve a biological purpose or we wouldn't have them. Just as reproduction in humans would grind to a halt if the process of courtship and mating were not so pleasurable, humans would probably starve if eating was a bland and endlessly neutral experience. The taste of bananas is a great example. A nearly perfect food that tastes great would go unnoticed if our sense of smell and taste revealed nothing about the food.

Thorough chewing makes sense because your stomach doesn't have teeth. People who wolf down their food are missing out on one of the most sensuous pleasures, that of a divine salad topped with a perfect avocado, brown rice and black beans with a bit of red pepper, or mango mousse. Food preparation is a fine art built on thousands of years of experimentation and refinement, and each meal takes time to prepare. So why not take your time to eat it when the meal is ready? I see a meal eaten in a big hurry as a waste of time, so I give myself plenty of relaxed time to eat, every day.

There is one other dimension to add here. If you chew your food thoroughly, you increase the amount of surface area available for digestion. The stomach uses acid and enzymes to break the food down, not teeth. Oh, there is some agitation of course, but unless the food is broken down enough by the teeth, putting whole food bits in the stomach does nothing more than let the food pass through, undigested.

I find that if I chew more, I eat less. My appetite is more satisfied by thorough chewing and I don't feel hungry much at all after a good meal. Of course, this depends on what you're eating. McD's actually has labs to test their food with the target of making you feel less full when you're done. On the other hand, minimally processed or whole food will stick with you longer, especially if you chew your food thoroughly. Home made meals are the best, by far.

So the next time you're eating, consider the relationship between flavor and surface area. When you chew your food thoroughly, you get more flavor, and you may find perhaps, moderation in eating comes from thorough chewing. You might even find greater satisfaction when the meal is done.
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