29 August 2023
Tasting and smelling are two senses that allow us to enjoy food, and actually help us avoid toxins. The human tongue is covered in bumps called papillae. Inside these bumps are what we call taste buds that have cells that can detect flavors. They are neurotransmitters that send signals to the brain to let it know what is in your mouth.
Humans can detect five basic tastes:
- Bitter – Mostly from plants and can indicate something not good for our system
However, not all bitterness is dangerous. Think about living without coffee, wine, or dark chocolate.
- Sweet – High energy
This generally comes from sugar or alcohol. Foods that are sweet provide us with carbohydrates, like glucose, that become fuel. Samples include honey, berries, fruit juices, baked goods like cakes, and cookies.
- Salt – Obvious
Combine sodium and chloride and you have table salt. This is important to balance fluids and electrolytes in the body. You will find salt in things like soy sauce, processed meats, canned foods, and as seasoning.
- Sour – Acid
Sometimes called tartness comes from acids produced by hydrogen ions. It is a signal that food could have spoiled, but not always. Perfectly acceptable are vinegar, lemon, cranberries, yogurt, and buttermilk.
- Umami or Savory – Something with a high protein content
This is an amino acid as a result of aspartic acid or glutamic acid. Some studies indicate that this helps us increase appetite and control the amount of protein in the digestive system. Good examples are meat broth, aged cheese, ripe tomatoes, and asparagus.
The entire tongue can detect flavors but there are places that have better receptors. The tongue’s tip is best for sweet, salt, and umami, and the sides are better at finding sour, leaving the bitter taste to the back of the tongue. The cells in the mouth regenerate quickly, within two weeks, so there is always a fresh group ready to help you enjoy your food and drink.
Your mouth can also detect fats, metallic substances, and alkaline. Alkaline comes from brine (like pickles) and some consider it the opposite of sour.
When combined with your sense of smell, the chemicals released when you chew will provide a full range of flavors and you will either enjoy it or not, depending on personal preferences.
Taste buds are not impervious. Sometimes something we eat or drink can damage the ability to taste for a short while or even permanently. Taste buds regenerate themselves but if not, you should consider the cause which could be from smoking, drinking alcohol, dental problems, extremely hot or cold foods, too much spice, or too sour. You can also be affected by upper respiratory problems (a head cold), certain medications, over exposure to chemicals like insecticides, or surgeries.
There are some things you can do to improve your sense of taste. These include trying different textures, flavors, and cooking techniques. If meats taste metallic, try a marinade. Experiment with sauces and spices. To increase saliva, sours like lemon can increase production and give your taste buds a wake up call
One final note is that there is a difference between taste and flavor. Taste is the taste buds reacting and transmitting signals to the brain. Flavor is a combination of taste and smell, and sometimes sight. Flavor is a combination of sensory experiences and taste is a reaction.