Experiencing Taste

By Rafia Virk, Ph.D. Student in Nutritional Biochemistry

Our taste can be influenced by genetics, experiences, the environment, and especially by our senses. Before, we used to believe that there were separate regions of the tongue that were responsible for each type of taste. The types of taste identified and named so far include, sour, bitter, sweet, salty, and umami. Umami is a new addition as it is the taste felt by the amino acid glutamate. This taste comes from any food rich in amino acids. Due to this realization MSG (monosodium glutamate) salt is added to foods to enrich the flavor. The question is how do we perceive these different flavors and their combinations in foods?

A study looked at the relationship between the preference for food and the genetic variation of the individual. Every individual has a different number of taste buds present on their tongue. Individuals with a lot are termed supertasters and get an intense flavor from 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP). Others with an average or less than an average number of papillae will faintly taste the PROP or not at all. This study found that women tended to be supertasters more than men and avoid high fats and high sugar foods. They said that the density of the papillae has a relation with accepting fats and vegetables as well. In addition to PROP, hormones may influence taste as well. This should be especially present in women. Another study cited by this article said that estradiol hormone fluctuations in rats were linked to acceptance of sweets.  This might explain why women like sweets more than men.

Our senses also influence our taste in conjunction with our genetics. We taste with sight, touch, smell, and mouth. We like to try foods that appeal to us and invite us. Something familiar-looking jolts our memory and makes us feel the taste without it entering our mouth. The smell from the aroma and gases dispersed in the air by the food will make us savor the taste. The saliva and taste buds will hint at the flavors. The tongue in the mouth will feel the food and its texture which brings a “salient” type of taste. Some people wonder if we can taste without the tongue and it is cited that people who have their tongue cut off still taste as strongly as a normal person. This indicates there is so much more to taste than the tongue that has the taste buds. On the other hand, smell is necessary for taste. If the smell is cut off it is almost impossible to taste any flavors in the mouth. I did an experiment where I pinched off my nose and ate a garlic Parmesan pretzel. I could only taste a slight saltiness but nothing more. I had no idea there was garlic present. Once I let go of my nose, I could instantly taste the garlic. It is surprising how many of our sensations work together to give us the pleasures of taste.

We also taste with our experiences and will avoid tastes that are unappealing to us. Bitter and sour tastes have connotations of toxicity and as a result we will generally get a strong aversion to them. A combination of other tastes invites us in. We create a memory of taste, and based on our likes and dislikes, our senses will recall that experience.

Now, all these senses are really important to me because I want to taste every flavor and aspect of food to really make it worth the calories. I live to eat and not eat to live and I really want my eating experience to be worth it. If the food doesn’t look inviting but I have a taste according to memory, I will try it. On the other hand, if it looks burned or brown, I will, like most people, avoid it. Now if something smells bad, I will definitely not try it, but it depends. Some foods do smell bad but usually, you can add things like ginger and garlic to decrease the foul aroma and enjoy it. There are so many combinations of flavors and textures that we can taste, that it makes life truly exciting.

Peer-edited by Leslie Ortega, BS in biology, Biopharmaceutical concentration

Picture credit: Rafia Virk

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