Have you ever wondered how our sense of taste works or do you just gobble down your meals and never give it a second thought? The science behind what happens in our mouths is quite fascinating and the emotions attached to flavours are often quite strong. We speak of sweet things in pleasant tones but pull a face when we describe a bitter taste. This link between emotion and taste helped our evolution and was the difference between surviving or not.
The four most commonly known tastes are sour, sweet, salty and bitter. The fifth lesser known taste is that of savoury. The sensory cells for picking up savoury tastes weren’t discovered by Japanese scientists until as late as 1910. That is why the Japanese word ‘Umami’ is used to describe this savoury taste. Engage your taste buds with some delicious food recipes at Food-Tales
Taste is actually a combination of sensations including smell temperature and texture. This explains why when you have a cold or blocked nose, your sense of taste is impaired as well. Our sense of smell is also highly emotional and connected to our involuntary nervous system. This explains why a bad taste or smell can make us feel sick or a good cooking smell can make our mouths water and increase production of gastric juices.
It is our tongues that provide the sensory information to the brain. Although there are five main taste types, most meals will provide a combination of these flavours. For example, a sweet and sour Chinese dish or a salty/savoury packet of crisps.
Sweet – what humans regard as sweet is usually a result of sugar, fructose or lactose. Some amino acids can also spark a sweet reaction, so too does alcohol in fruit juices.
Salty – salt is a combination of sodium and chloride and is mainly used in our diets in the form of table salt.
Bitter – throughout evolution we have relied on our sensory perception of bitterness to warn us against dangerous plants. There are 35 proteins in our sensory cells that respond to bitter substances which was necessary for our survival.
Sour – acidic things cause our sour reaction. The sensation is caused by hydrogen ions being split when an acidic solution is dissolved in water. Sour tastes are found in lemon juice for example.
Savoury – this taste has been compared to a meat broth-type taste caused by aspartic or glutamic acid. Foods that contain high levels of glutamic acid include ripe tomatoes, cheese and meat. Glutamates can be added to food to intensify the savoury taste. This is seen in a lot of Chinese cooking.
If something is considered spicy, this isn’t actually a taste. Spicy foods set off pain signals in nerves that transmit temperature and touch sensations. The most common substance that causes this reaction is called capsaicin and is found in foods seasoned with chili.
We have an amazing capacity to experience the most diverse flavours. If you consider that we have 5 basic tastes that can each experience 10 levels of intensity, then it’s possible to access 10,000 individual flavours!