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Mastication is the chewing or grinding of food in the mouth into a soft, warm mush called a bolus, which can be easily swallowed. It is the first step in digestion in mammals, which breaks down food into simple carbohydrates that can be converted into energy or stored for later use. Mastication requires that the jaw muscles, tongue, and teeth work together to push food around the mouth in a rhythmic motion. The action increases the surface area of food, which enables the digestive enzymes in saliva to work efficiently to kill bacteria and begin digestion. Proper mastication not only fully exploits the nutritious value of food, but it also helps the mouth and teeth stay clean.
The word mastication is derived from the Latin masticāre, which translates as "to chew." Generally, the ability to masticate evolved so mammals could take advantage of a wider variety of foods. Carnivores have jaws and teeth that enable them to tear meat and swallow with little chewing. Herbivores, such as cud-chewing cows, almost continuously masticate high-fiber diets.
Mastication is controlled by the brain stem of the body and is a learned skill. Infants must develop jaw muscles before they can begin to chew soft food at about three months old. As their teeth set in and their timing improves, babies learn to masticate solid foods.
Generally, mastication is a factor in the body’s ability to feel satisfied after a meal. Thorough chewing of food enables the tongue to taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter foods, one step toward feeling sated. Slow chewing draws more nutrients from food and signals the rest of the digestive system to start juices flowing to digest the meal that is en route.
Getting the most out of a meal requires mastering the art of mastication. Diners should chew each bite at least 35 times before swallowing. The fork should be rested and a sip of water taken between bites, which gives the brain a chance to feel full.