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What Is Taste?

Taste is viewed as one of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Taste results when a substance in the mouth reacts chemically with receptors: taste buds. Taste, along with smell and nerve stimulation (which also handles touch for texture, pain and temperature), determines flavors, the sensory impressions of food or other substances.

Yet it is so much more than this. According to Dictionary.com, taste is

  1. to try or test the flavor or quality of (something) by taking some into the mouth: to taste food.
  2. to eat or drink a little of: she barely tasted her dinner.
  3. to eat or drink (often used in negative constructions): he hadn't tasted food for three days.
  4. to perceive or distinguish the flavor of: to taste the wine in a sauce.
  5. to have or get experience, especially a slight experience: these young men who had only begun to taste life.

Arguably, the question of taste is in many ways related to the underlying social divisions of community. There is likely to be variation between groups of different socioeconomic status in preferences for cultural practices and goods, to the extent that it is often possible to identify particular types of class taste. Also, within many theories concerning taste, class dynamics is understood as one of the principal mechanisms structuring taste and the ideas of sophistication and vulgarity.

So, clearly, taste, in and of itself, is an integral part of our life experience. There is an old expression that, the more important a thing is to us as people, the more names and meanings behind a name it has. But, here in FoodUtah.com, we will focus on the physical aspects of tasting, in terms of eating and drinking.

Mechanics of Taste

Humans perceive taste through sensory organs called taste buds, concentrated on the top of the tongue. The tongue is covered with thousands of small bumps, which are easily visible to the naked eye. Within each bump are hundreds of taste buds, comprising between 2,000 and 5,000 located on the back and front of the tongue. Others are located on the roof, sides and back of the mouth, and in the throat. Each taste bud contains 50 to 100 taste-receptor cells. Taste perception fades with age: On average, people lose half their taste receptors by time they turn 20.

The sensation of taste was categorized into five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Taste buds are able to differentiate among different tastes through detecting interaction with different molecules. Sweet, umami, and bitter tastes are triggered by the binding of molecules to G protein-coupled receptors on the cell membranes of taste buds. Saltiness and sourness are perceived when alkali metal or hydrogen ions enter taste buds. As taste senses both harmful and beneficial things, all basic tastes work to attract or deter us. Sweetness helps to identify energy-rich foods, while bitterness serves as a warning sign of poisons.

Types of Tastes

In Western civilization, Aristotle postulated around 350 BCE in Ancient Greece that the two most basic tastes were sweet and bitter, was one of the first to develop a list of basic tastes. This list expanded in time to what is recognized today as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umani, although there is some evidence for a sixth taste that senses fatty substances.

  • Sweet, usually regarded as a pleasurable sensation, is produced by the presence of sugars and a few other substances.
  • Sour, the taste that detects acidity.
  • Salty, a taste produced primarily by the presence of sodium ions. Other ions of the alkali metals group also taste salty, but the further from sodium the less salty the sensation is.
  • Bitter, the most sensitive of the tastes, and many perceive it as unpleasant, sharp, or disagreeable, but it is sometimes desirable and intentionally added via various bittering agents. Common bitter foods and beverages include coffee, unsweetened cocoa, South American mate, bitter gourd, beer (due to hops), bitters, olives, citrus peel, many plants in the Brassicaceae family, dandelion greens, wild chicory, and escarole. Quinine is also known for its bitter taste and is found in tonic water.
  • Umami, described as a savory or meaty taste. It can be tasted in cheese and soy sauce, and while also found in many other fermented and aged foods, this taste is also present in tomatoes, grains, and beans.

Bitterness is of interest to those who study evolution, as well as various health researchers since a large number of natural bitter compounds are known to be toxic. The ability to detect bitter-tasting, toxic compounds at low thresholds is considered to provide an important protective function. Plant leaves often contain toxic compounds, yet even amongst leaf-eating primates, there is a tendency to prefer immature leaves, which tend to be higher in protein and lower in fiber and poisons than mature leaves.

Extremes of Taste

There are two extremes in the world of taste: the supertaster and those who cannot taste at all.

A supertaster is a person whose sense of taste is significantly more sensitive than average. The cause of this heightened response is likely, at least in part, due to an increased number of taste buds. Studies have shown that supertasters require less fat and sugar in their food to get the same satisfying effects. However, contrary to what one might think, these people actually tend to consume more salt than the average person. This is due to their heightened sense of the taste of bitterness, and the presence of salt drowns out the taste of bitterness. (This also explains why supertasters prefer salted cheddar cheese over non-salted.)

Ageusia is the loss of taste functions of the tongue, particularly the inability to detect sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. It is sometimes confused with anosmia – a loss of the sense of smell. Because the tongue can only indicate texture and differentiate between sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, most of what is perceived as the sense of taste is actually derived from smell. True ageusia is relatively rare compared to hypogeusia – a partial loss of taste – and dysgeusia – a distortion or alteration of taste.

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     food·ie (fd)
     noun. Slang.  A person who has an ardent or refined interest in food; a gourmet.