One of the most important things that we get from food, other than nutrition of course, is the taste. We have five senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. The senses of smell and taste work hand-in-hand and that’s why we smell our food before tasting it. The smell of food also helps us determine whether the food is good to eat or is spoiled. If you pinched your nose to block out the smell of food and then tasted it, it would not taste the same. Your palate will detect the flavours as milder and blander than they actually are, without help from the nose.
The tongue performs its task with the help of taste buds. Taste buds are special receptor cells that send signals to the brain and are present not only on the tongue but inside the mouth and the throat too. The tongue may taste the food but cannot detect the flavour. Flavour is detected with the help of a combination of senses. You know the flavour of a dish by the way it smells, looks and tastes.
Thus taste is a very simple sense, yet it is a mysterious one that scientists are still struggling to fully understand.
Now we know why one person may relish green chillies and another may not. The taste of the chilly does not change. The capsaicin in it makes the chilly hot to taste for some even while others can gobble it up with ease.
This shows that different people taste the same food differently. Some are even ‘supertasters’ with a greater number of taste receptors in their mouth.
This makes the science of taste highly subjective as supertasters can experience the full intensity of taste in every food item, making them relish even bland, mild dishes that they can taste better than a non-supertaster. They don’t like food with a strong taste as it irritates their palate.
We all remember the taste maps in our biology books in school that divided the tongue into sections that sense different kinds of taste — sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
This map has recently been debunked by scientists because our whole tongue tastes the food that we eat as a single dish, which is a combination of flavours. They have also added Umami (Japanese word meaning ‘Savoury’) to the flavours we can taste and are possibly adding ‘fat’ into the mix too.
Studies are still on to see if the human tongue can detect the taste of fats individually.
Humans, on an average, have about 10,000 taste buds in their mouth. Each taste bud consists of 50 receptors and some are capable of detecting every taste while others just provide support to those cells.
The taste of food helped our ancestors living in caves to decipher what food would help them survive.
For instance sweet food is full of carbohydrates and has a higher calorie count while salty food has essential minerals and vitamins. On the other hand food that is bitter is often poisonous. Sour food can either be healthy, like citrus fruits, or spoilt, like milk that has gone bad.
Taste was thus necessary for survival and that is how these primary tastes came into play. If a food item is neither harmful nor helpful, we may not even taste it. This is a theory that came about because cats cannot taste sweetness. A cat’s tongue is not designed to sense anything sweet, therefore the sweet taste does not harm it.
On the other hand it can be harmful for dogs to eat sweet food and so it can be said that dogs can taste sweetness in food items.
Scientists have come up with chemicals that can copy the flavour of sweetness or salinity and are thus helping the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar and salt in pre-packaged food items, in an endeavour to make them healthier.
Something like MSG, often known as ajinomoto in India, which is mainly used in oriental cooking, tastes horrible on its own but when sprinkled on dishes it enhances the flavour of the dish. This additive works on your tongue, making it more receptive and hence making the dish taste better.
The studies on taste are ongoing as scientists still keep discovering something new regularly.
We may get to know more about it in the future, but until then, you could perhaps take your tongue on an adventure trip and taste things you never have!