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The Wiki Man

Is taste all in the mind? Louse crap says it is

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

23 June 2018

9:00 AM

An Iranian friend of mine recently brought me some gaz from Isfahan. Commonly known as Persian nougat, gaz is perhaps the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. The only thing to avoid is learning how it is made. Pistachio nuts are mixed with ‘honeydew’ collected from the angebin plant of the Zagros mountains, a sticky white substance often believed to be the manna of the Bible. It sounds glorious. That is until my friend told me that honeydew is not the sap of the plant — but is exuded from the anus of an insect which feeds on it. So one of the tastiest things on the planet turns out to be louse crap.

What we know of something strangely affects how it tastes. In fact our enjoyment and appreciation of different foods is a strange mixture of fashion, scarcity bias, snobbery and mental associations: our taste buds play only a supporting role in deciding what we eat. In the early 19th century, white bread was a luxury: the kind of wholemeal loaf you now buy from a hipster for £4.80 was handed out to the poor in times of famine. In Scotland, servants demanded employment contracts which guaranteed they would not be fed salmon more than three times a week.

I have always been mystified by the popularity of miso soup. Imagine if you had never come across it before, and one day a local café served you a murky-looking broth with strange bits of leaf half-floating in it. You’d send it back, wouldn’t you? And yet many people — including me — are rather happy to drink miso soup once we know it’s Japanese.


Just as fashion can make weird-tasting soups popular, it can condemn obviously delicious things to disuse. Sherry, which has to be the most undervalued alcoholic drink in existence, seems to continue to decline in popularity, for no clear reason other than snobbery. Weirder still, it seems that we don’t even know what drives what we eat and drink. We would all say, I think, that we like eating ice cream in the summer to cool down, yet sunshine, not temperature, is the best predictor of ice-cream sales. And the country in Europe with the highest per-capita ice cream consumption is Finland.

Most interesting of all is research conducted into our perception of wine. On occasion, the same wine has been entered into a competition under two different labels. In one case, one was rejected in the first round while the other went on to win the overall competition. Wine tastes better when poured from a heavier bottle.

There is a growing field of research, called gastrophysics, which seeks to understand how such mechanisms work. What we now need is a corresponding field of study called gastropolitics, which investigates why people hold the tastes and opinions they do. For just as ‘try this soup’ and ‘try this soup — it’s Japanese’ will elicit completely different reactions, so it goes with policy. We need to realise that people do not evaluate political ideas the way we think they do. And people’s justifications for their beliefs are highly unreliable.

The organisation which most needs to invest in research into gastropolitics is the European Union. An organisation intended to promote European harmony and cooperation (which I think we can all agree is a really good idea) seems to be having absolutely the opposite effect — driving a nationalist backlash in most major countries. Something about it clearly doesn’t taste right. But what?

It was said there were no rational reasons for voting to leave the EU. Maybe so. But the fact that there seemed to be no compelling emotional reasons for urging people to stay is surely an even greater failing.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.


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