What does fear taste like?

The relationship between the flavors that we experience through taste –and sometimes also through smell- with the emotions we experience, are the subject of interest in scientific disciplines, from neurology to sociology and anthropology.

Why do people associate certain tastes and smells with emotions and vice versa? The answer to this question suggests a complex network where the social mixes with the biological and the borders are not well defined.

One of the strongest emotions in human beings is fear. Anchored in our neural systems since the first humans, fear is a complex survival mechanism, which when it plays in our favor warns us of objective and latent dangers, which thanks to fear, we can detect and, if appropriate, act. Just as it happens with stress, which is a mechanism that has allowed us to survive as a species, today we are subject to a variety of stimuli that are very different from those of our ancestors.

For some people, the fear is associated with intensely sour, bitter, or even smoky flavors. Interestingly, fear in almost no culture is related to the taste of sweets. Beyond the flavors, there are also people who associate fear with the textures of some foods more than with their taste. Thus, for example, any food that contains the blood of an animal or a particular viscosity refers to an imaginary of the blood itself, which is why in some people it causes sensations similar to fear.

It has also been described that some foods in particular, those that are full of sodium, help comfort fear symptoms in some people. The difficult thing about recognizing emotions and the way in which people relate them to food is that fear is easily confused with aversion, or with the anxiety itself caused by a food that is in the repertoire of disgust of a person. What has been easier to identify, for example, is that after a situation in which a person was afraid, there are foods that they resort to to “remove the scare”. These foods are culturally constructed –such as a piece of bread– and others result from the particular taste of the person, often resulting in “strange” combinations.

From gastronomy, obviously the provocation of emotions in the diner through food has been one of the great objects of interest of many of the most acclaimed chefs in the world. Ferrán Adrià on several occasions has pointed out that his thing is the intellectualization of what the diner eats, that is, he tries to go beyond flavors to provoke emotions from the moment he knew that this constituted a peculiarity of the human species . So fascinated was he by the notion of fear in gastronomy, that one of his dishes was called “Fear Provoking” which contained a strong concentration of smoky flavors.

The common denominator of all these views is that in such turbulent times when there are other powerful reasons to actually feel fear, food works more as a buffer than a trigger for strong fear emotions in people. This is why, faced with high exposure to sources of fear and anxiety, some people turn to specific foods to try to provoke different emotions.

Food and society columnist


Food and society columnist. Gastronaut, observer and foodie. She is a researcher in sociology of food, nutritionist. She is president and founder of Funalid: Foundation for Food and Development.

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