Yum! I love how it tastes!
We all have favorite foods.
Some people go straight for the sweets like chocolate. Others prefer salty nuts or chips and salsa to satisfy their cravings. Whatever the case, we feel strongly about tastes. There are preferences and emotions.
That is because smell and taste are strongly linked to emotions. These flavor components and emotions are processed in the same part of the brain.
It is the reason many people have passion for food. And it is the reason behind my article series Love of food.
Welcome to part 2 of the series. This article covers the topic of taste. This includes what is taste, what are the 6 defined tastes, as well as what tastes might scientists deem worthy of the title in the future.
What is taste
Taste refers to the information sent from the tongue to the brain. Chemicals in food are picked up by the gustatory system and sent to the brain. Because taste is only one component of flavor, the brain combines the information from all the other senses to determine flavor.
Taste is sensed through the taste buds. These taste buds are located on the tongue, throat and palate.
Each taste bud has 50-150 taste cells representing all 6 taste sensations in differing proportions. The receptor proteins of the taste cells either bind with or channel the ions of the taste ingredients. These actions are picked up by the nerve fibers and sent to the brain.
There is actually some disagreement as to what makes up our basic taste senses. There is no single definition of taste that is agreed upon by everyone. In an attempt to make it as consistent as possible, science is required. By using chemicals, nerve systems, and processes we can try to make sense of the sense.
Using this method, a basic taste should have…
- a unique structure
- a unique receptor
- people are able to distinguish it from other tastes
Fun facts from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders:
- About 25% of Americans are non-tasters, 50% are medium tasters, and 25% are super-tasters.
- Taste cells (along with smell cells) are the only sensory cells that are regularly replaced throughout life. Taste cells usually last about 10 days. How cool is that? I never knew this.
- Women at all ages are generally more accurate than men in identifying odors. As we now know from my Love of food series, part 1 flavor article, smell is the largest component of flavor perception.
In addition to all the pleasure taste gives us, it serves an important function. It helps us test what they are consuming. Is it ripe, rotten, or poison? You will likely taste it. Thus, over the course of human history it has helped us survive.
I will now cover the 6 scientifically-tested tastes. With each taste, I identify foods/flavorants associated with the taste, what balances or counteracts the taste, and what other taste it enhances or brings out.
The chemicals that cause the salty taste are mineral salts. Commonly sodium chloride, but can also be potassium or magnesium salts.
What we get from salty foods is salt and other minerals. These enable modulating diet for electrolyte balance.
- Description: amplifying and sharpening
- Food associated with: Salt, anchovy, cured meats, olives
- Balances: Bitter
- Enhances: Sweet
Mostly acidic solutions taste sour. The sour taste is the hydrogen ions split off by an acid dissolved in a watery solution. The hydrogen ions also inhibit the hyperpolarization of the taste receptor cell.
What we get from sour foods is vitamin C.
- Description: brightening, sharp
- Food associated with: lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, pickles, yogurt, sour cream
- Balances: Sweet
- Enhances: Salty
This taste is typically associated with sugars, but can also be caused by amino acids and alcohols.
What we get from sweet foods are carbohydrates. This provides us with energy rich nutrients.
- Description: sugared or candied
- Food associated with: sugar, honey, maple syrup, apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, corn
- Balances: Sour, Bitter
- Enhances: Salty
The bitter taste is the taste of a base (as opposed to an acid). There are about 35 different proteins in the sensory cells that respond to bitter substances.
Most people have a natural aversion to bitter. This likely evolved because most toxic plants taste bitter.
This taste allows us to sense many natural toxins.
- Description: harsh, unpleasant
- Food associated with: coffee, chocolate, beer, broccoli, kale, radicchio
- Balances: Sweet, Salty
- Enhanced with: NA
This taste is produced by the free glutamates (largely based on amino acids and nucleotides) commonly found in fermented and aged foods.
What we get from umami foods are amino acids and protein.
- Description: earthy, meaty, brothy
- Food associated with: parmesan cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce, walnuts, tomatoes, mushrooms, MSG
- Balances: Bitter
- Enhances: Sweet
Since this was just recently determined to be a taste, there is still a lot that needs to be learned. It is not the creamy flavor we associate with the triglycerides in fatty foods because that is more of a mouthfeel sensed through the trigeminal senses than taste with taste buds.
It is speculated that just as with bitter, the sense of oleogustus is more of a warning that we are consuming something we shouldn’t.
What we get from oleogustus is fat (calories)!
- Description: unpleasant, linoleic acid
- Food associated with: rancid foods, oxidized oil
- Balanced with: NA
- Enhanced with: NA
I expect to hear more about oleogustus in the future as scientists find more information to share with us.
Future of taste
Sometimes it surprises me how much we don’t know about our own bodies. We have such great technology and yet our bodies still hold some mystery.
I do appreciate that humans are complex beings. It is amazing to me that so many of us function as well as we do considering all our different systems.
Thanks to some curious and smart people, research continues on the quest for knowledge regarding taste and flavor. As time goes on, there will likely be more officially recognized tastes.
Contenders that are being studied are:
We have the ability to love and hate tastes. Both serve us well, so listen to your body.
If you haven’t already, read the first article in the Love of food series: Love of food series, part 1: What is flavor and how do we perceive it?
The next article will complete the love of food series. It will focus on cooking and enjoying of food.
(Coming Soon: Love of food series, part 3)
Do you have certain foods you always crave? Let me know in the poll or comments!
About Taste from Science of Cooking
A STUDY OF FLAVOR PROFILES from Cook Smarts
FYI: WHY DOES SOME FOOD TASTE BAD TO SOME PEOPLE AND GOOD TO OTHERS? from Popular Science
How does our sense of taste work? from U.S. National Library of Medicine
Learn to Make Any Dish You Cook Better with the Science of Taste from Life Hacker
Quick Statistics About Taste and Smell from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorder
Taste Molecules — The Molecular Basis of Taste from Science of Cooking
The 5 Tastes & How to Cook with Them from Food 52
The Flavor Connection from Scientific American
The science of taste from Kitchen Geekery
Tip of the Tongue: Humans May Taste at Least 6 Flavors from Live Science
What is Flavor? from Science of Cooking
What is taste? from About Taste