The science of how we taste is a big business to food companies trying to create the perfect snack to allure your taste buds and, accordingly, get you to buy just one more bag of salty, sugary and high-fructose corn syrup-laced snacks. Food scientists are hard at work not only to make “better” junk food, but also also foods for vegans with the texture and flavor resembling the “real thing.”
Scientists still don’t know a lot about how our approximately 10,000 taste buds work. Taste, as Scientific American notes, may be the least understood of our five senses. Here are a few things we do know:
1) There are five basic tastes.
Besides sweet, salty, sour and bitter, there is a fifth taste, umami, from a Japanese word for “pleasant savory taste” and is distinguished from saltiness. Scientists have found that the human tongue (where most of our taste receptors are located) has specific taste receptores for L-glutamate.
2) If you burn your mouth on hot coffee, your taste buds are not out of commission permanently.
Taste buds are not, says Scientific American, “static structures;” the taste cells in our taste buds live for only about two weeks.
3) Taste buds don’t do all the work.
To get the full taste of a crispy, juicy apple, we also rely on our sense of smell (so food seems to lack flavor when we have a cold), as well as on texture and temperature.
4) Not all your taste buds are on your tongue.
While the majority are on the human tongue, taste buds are also found in our mouths and throats.
5) Some people are super tasters.
You are one if you find a drug called propylthiouracil (PROP; it is commonly used to treat an overactive thyroid) very bitter. (You can also try this online test courtesy of the BBC.) Super tasters are those with more fungiform papillae (mushroom-shaped structures on the tongue) and, therefore, more taste buds.
6) Being a super taster isn’t necessarily a plus.
Supertasters taste foods more intensely, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy their food more. Rather, sugary foods taste sweeter, those with sodium are saltier “and bitterness is unbearable, but as well as this, the sensation from things such as carbon dioxide bubbles and chili peppers is more pronounced,” as Amy Fleming writes in the Guardian. Some supertasters can even “detect tiny differences in the fat content of milk,” says Fleming.
7) Your taste buds make different sounds based on what you are eating.
It’s possible to hear what your taste buds are tasting, via a tiny microphone wrapped in polyethylene placed in a person’s mouth. The microphones sense on vibrations, which change based on how much deformation the fungiform papillae experience when they rub against the palate. For instance, coffee with or without cream sounds different.
As for why anyone would want to use sound to quantify taste: in their search to develop the perfect taste for an item, food scientists are ever at work to develop foods that have the perfect “mouthfeel.” Listening in on tastebuds gives them some extra information to make vegan mozzarella taste like the kind made from buffalo’s milk.
When I was a kid, I was always dismayed to realize that a family dinner would conclude with a cake from a Chinese bakery decorated with (straight-from-the-can) mandarin orange slices. The white ribbons of frosting looked creamy but they weren’t sweet in the way I — used to Twinkies, Oreos and the like — expected desserts to be. When Hostess announced that it would cease to make the cloyingly sweet sponge cakes, I admit I thought “that’s progress:” the taste of a Twinkie would be as unpleasant to me now as American-style cakes were to my older Chinese relatives, who happily ate those mandarin-orange cakes.
What’s pleasing to one person’s taste buds isn’t to someone else’s. Have your tastes changed over time?
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