GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For her “outstanding contributions to the psychological study of human taste perception,” a University of Florida scientist recently earned a top recognition from the American Psychological Association.
Linda Bartoshuk, an experimental psychologist by training who is affiliated with both the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ department of food science and human nutrition (FSHN) and the UF Center for Smell and Taste, is among the APA’s three 2019 recipients of the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, one of the most senior awards in psychology.
“This award has sentimental meaning to me because my mentor was a recipient in 1963,” she said. But Bartoshuk is no stranger to accolades, having earned a long list of honors from prestigious organizations, including an election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2003.
After spending the first 30 years of her career at Yale University, Bartoshuk accepted an invitation to join the UF College of Dentistry faculty in 2005 – “I heard myself saying yes,” she says of the unexpected conversation.
“When I got here, I met the people in horticulture and food science. I had never worked in those areas, but my work was related,” she said. “I ultimately started doing work in food science because it was just a fantastic group of people and the university really fosters an environment of collaboration. I didn’t change what I did; what I did was of interest to food science.”
Bartoshuk’s expertise has played a key role in projects aiming to improve the flavors of food. In one, she collaborated with a group led by Harry Klee, an eminent scholar and professor in the UF/IFAS horticultural sciences department, in his quest to develop a better-tasting tomato.
This work sparked an interest in identifying the “sweet” or “salty” compounds – called volatiles – that contribute to the flavor of a food.
“In 30 years of research, the field had come up with about 12 different volatiles that would enhance ‘sweet,’” Bartoshuk said. “In one experiment, we found that many in a tomato. Then we looked at a strawberry and found 30 more, and oranges and found 30 more. We now have over 100 volatiles that enhance ‘sweet,’ and no one had any idea there were that many.”
She says research into volatiles is just beginning, and it opens up the possibility of new and safe ways to enhance the palatability of foods, such as sweetening a soda without adding sugar or artificial sweeteners or making a salty-tasting soup that’s low in sodium.
Despite her expressed enthusiasm for what the future of food science holds, Bartoshuk guesses she is probably most well-known for her work with supertasters, a term coined from her work at Yale that revealed certain individuals exhibited an elevated taste response.
“The world tastes about two or three times as intense to supertasters as it does to others,” Bartoshuk said. “This changes their food preferences, which determine diet, and diet has a lot to do with risk factors for disease. The area that I worked in for many years was looking at health conditions affected by this genetic difference.”
Bartoshuk said the APA’s recognition gives her the opportunity to shine a light on both her own career of studying taste perception, as well as the field’s long history. As part of the award, winners have a paper published in the American Psychologist journal and are invited to give a presentation at the group’s annual convention.
“The paper and presentation will be about what Aristotle didn’t know about flavor,” Bartoshuk said. “It’s a review from the ancient work up to the present. For Aristotle, taste and flavor were the same thing. He was wrong because flavor isn’t taste, it’s olfaction.”
This new work was done in collaboration with colleagues in her department, Charles Sims and Derek Snyder, as well as a colleague from environmental horticulture, Thomas Colquhoun, all of whom will be co-authors on the paper describing this work.
“Interdisciplinary research changes the way you do science and makes it much more collaborative,” she said. “I’m at the end of my career. For me, to be able to come to the University of Florida, and to work with this new group of people, and work on brand-new research that people didn’t understand correctly before, it’s just incredibly exciting.”
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.