What great taste!

We often wonder if we like something or not – we comment on whether we prefer spicy or mild cuisine, and we know how enormous our craving for sweets can be. The sense of taste is a real blessing. The Best Chef Awards exist because of it! Thank goodness for the sense of taste!

The tastebuds

Let’s look at this issue from a more scientific point of view. The human sense of taste is the ability to distinguish between the food we consume. It is used for the chemical analysis of the composition of food, which allows us to enjoy the food we eat. For centuries it has been argued that taste is an inferior sense. What a great mistake! Why do we need taste? Today we would probably say that it’s for pleasure. But was that why it was created? Certainly not! Recently, during the covid-19 pandemic, many of us suffered from the loss of taste and smell. Did this only cause us not to enjoy our meals? Not at all. Many people were afraid that they would eat something stale or spoiled, and in the past, the sense of taste was mainly to protect us from poisoning.

The taste buds on the tongue are, of course, responsible for taste. But the perceived taste of food depends not only on taste receptors but also on olfactory receptors. Signals from both of these organs give us a full taste sensation. There are 5 types of flavors:

  • sweet – carbohydrates, mainly simple sugars, and disaccharides,
  • salty – sodium and potassium salts,
  • sour – organic and inorganic acids,
  • bitter – alkaloids and many inorganic salts,
  • umami – detects the presence of glutamic acid, a component of most proteins, for example in tomatoes.

A popular myth

The umami taste is a relatively new discovery. It was identified in 2000. What is the source of this flavor? Monosodium glutamate! Although this substance is often badly associated, it is also found in natural and healthy products such as tomatoes, Parmesan, green tea, mushrooms, tuna, and beef.

Due to misinterpretations of the results of studies carried out in the late 19th century, for many years it was thought that different parts of the tongue were responsible for the sensation of different tastes. In fact, the differences in sensitivity to different tastes in different regions of the tongue and palate in mammals are slight.

An interesting fact is that the substances do not always taste the same to representatives of different species. Something that is, for example, sweet to a human will not be the same to a mouse. Sweet, umami, and slightly salty flavors are a signal that encourages most species to eat. Bitter, clearly sour, and very salty flavors discourage consumption. Colloquially, the sense of spicy food is also referred to as flavor, however, it’s not actually the effect of taste receptors but of pain and temperature receptors.

What’s your favorite flavor?

Kristin Scott, Taste recognition: food for thought, „Neuron”
Jose Luquin, Have you ever tasted pain?, Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute, Stanford University, 2017

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