Health, Sports & Psychology

The Secrets of Your Food

'The Secrets of Your Food' is the delicious science story of the food on your plate. 

  • Updated Friday 10th March 2017
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James and Michael with chillies in Bristol, UK. Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Martha Swales - BBC Michael Mosley and James Wong present a celebration of the physics, chemistry and biology that lies hidden inside every bite. Together they travel the world and take over the UK’s leading food lab as they deconstruct our favourite meals, taking us inside the food, right down to the molecular level.

In the first episode, “We Are What We Eat,” Michael and James explore how the chemicals in our food feed and build our bodies. The world is full of different cuisines and thousands of different meals. Yet when they’re reduced to their essence, there are actually just a handful of ingredients that our bodies absolutely need from our food to survive. 

In the second episode, “A Matter of Taste,” Michael and James explore how the marriage between chemistry and biology is the root of all the sensations, tastes and flavours that we enjoy in our food. Michael begins by deconstructing a Thai meal. Its effect on the tongue can be reduced down to just five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and the less well-known umami.

In the final episode, Michael and James explore the effect of “Food on the Brain.” The brain is one of the greediest organs in the body in terms of the energy it needs to run. The way it influences our diet is, in the main, by generating the cravings we all experience. 

The Secrets of Your Food is first broadcast on Friday 24th February on BBC Two at 9pm, and is available on iPlayer. Full broadcast details and links to watch again can be found on bbc.co.uk.

Episode guide

A Matter of Taste

When and where

Friday, 3rd March 2017 21:00 - (except Wales and Northern Ireland)
Saturday, 4th March 2017 21:15 - (Wales only)
Monday, 6th March 2017 23:15 - (except Northern Ireland)
Monday, 6th March 2017 23:45 - (Northern Ireland only)
Thursday, 30th March 2017 00:15 - BBC Two
Thursday, 30th March 2017 00:35 - BBC Two

For more information about The Secrets of Your Food visit bbc.co.uk Subscribe to our What's On feed

Michael Mosley eating Brain Salad Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Martha Swales - BBC In this episode, “A Matter of Taste,” Michael and James explore how the marriage between chemistry and biology is the root of all the sensations, tastes and flavours that we enjoy in our food. Michael begins by deconstructing a Thai meal. Its effect on the tongue can be reduced down to just five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and the less well-known umami.

Umami is the most recently discovered of all the tastes. It’s a Japanese word that translates as ‘pleasant savoury taste’. The tomato has more umami than any other fruit as Michael discovers during La Tomatina, a tomato festival in Eastern Spain. It’s one massive food fight that literally paints the town red. The umami molecule - an amino acid called glutamate – is found inside the tomato juice. These molecules are the building blocks of proteins and we’ve ended up with a wonderful adaptation; a taste receptor on our tongues that’s on the look out for glutamate in our food. We are wired to enjoy the taste of protein.

The most umami-rich food on the planet is found nearby in the oak forests of Southwest Spain, home to the black-footed Iberico pig. For two winters these pigs roam the forests, gorging on fat-rich acorns. They give the meat a gorgeous fatty shell, which protects the ham whilst it cures, and means it can cure for far longer than any other ham. During the process we see how the cells break down deep inside the ham as naturally occurring enzymes break down the protein into more and more glutamate molecules, thus creating the intense umami flavour.

In France James searches for the origins of our love of salt. He discovers that this taste is the result of our ancient cellular biology. All life seems to have arisen in the oceans and the earliest cells almost certainly developed there too. As they formed, they trapped a little bit of sea water inside them and, whilst our cells are no longer as salty as the ocean, salt remains vital to the correct functioning of every cell in the body. Little surprise then that we have a salt receptor on the look out for the sodium in our food. In France James visits some of the oldest salt evaporation ponds in Europe, an entire landscape sculpted by our love of salt.

The bitter taste plays a very different role to salt. It evolved to be the mouth’s gatekeeper. That’s because most poisons found in nature taste bitter. It’s such a vital protection system, that we have around 20 times more bitter receptors on our tongues than we do for sweetness. In Peru James visits a group of people descended from the Inca who, over generations, have transformed the potato from a bitter tasting, poisonous plant into a life-giving staple.

Next, James and Michael explore the affinity that sweet has with sour by forensically examining the strawberry. Strawberries are actually quite acidic, and have almost half the sugar content of blueberries, yet we think of them as the sweetest summer fruits. Why? Because they are devious. They trick the brain, using our sense of smell by giving off a series of aroma molecules that fool us into perceiving more sugar than there is. It’s a neat trick that might help food scientists find ways of reducing the amount of sugar we add to our foods.

When it comes to creating the boldest flavours cooking is a game changer. It unleashes a cascade of biochemical reactions inside our food that Michael follows from the grill to the inside our noses.  This chemical transformation is known as the Maillard reaction. It’s one of the most complex chemical reactions that we know of and we do it every time we cook. As we heat food, the proteins and sugar in the food create a cascade of thousands of different taste and smell molecules that impart wonderful flavour. Every time you grill a steak, make toast, or brew a beer, it’s the Maillard reaction at play.  

Scientists are beginning to identify every one of these smell molecules. And as James discovers whilst helping to make a batch of Epoisses - one of the stinkiest cheeses in the whole of France - some of these aroma molecules are very peculiar. They’re very similar to the smell of stinky feet but, when combined with the taste in the mouth, plus a special kind of smelling known as backward smelling, the resulting flavour is sensational.

Using the latest imaging techniques throughout and incredibly detailed specialist photography Michael and James offer us a whole new way of thinking about our relationship to the modern diet. And by the end of their journey through flavour, they reveal that taste is far more than just being delicious – it’s a matter of survival.

Episodes in this series

Episode Description
We Are What We Eat Michael Mosley and James Wong travel the world to reveal how the hidden chemistry in every mouthful of food keeps our... Read more
A Matter of Taste Michael Mosley and James Wong travel the world to reveal the science that makes our food taste delicious and the... Read more
Food on the Brain Michael Mosley and James Wong reveal the power food has to create cravings in our brains. Read more

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