We probably all love birthday celebrations, but I personally enjoy the moment when I get to dig my teeth into the cake. My birthday cake this year was exceptionally good and was made by my mother-in-law. Made from almond powder, chocolate and instant espresso powder, I would say that this confection was a perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness. Even though the pandemic and its government-based safety measures are still prohibiting us from celebrating birthdays in full and due form, I was greatly satisfied with this birthday. Lots of friends and family members sent me their wishes through social media and SMS. I received absolutely great gifts, and I was surrounded by people I so dearly love. Nonetheless, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the cherry on top of everything was the cake. I know! I know! I keep mentioning the cake, but maybe you’ve come to realize now that I am a glutton. I love food. I must say that the flavours have probably a lot to do with it. I just can’t seem to get enough.
There are surely many things we must all learn about taste and flavour. Let’s start with the distinction between the two since many of us tend to use them interchangeably. Taste refers to the sense, which can also be called gustation. Flavour refers to the whole experience produced through taste, sight and smell. So taste might be in part flavour, but that still does not make flavour the same as taste. We can say that taste is simpler than flavour as it involves only one instead of three senses. Thus, we can start by mentioning a thing or two about taste.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about taste, the first images that come to my mind are taste samples. Yet, there probably should be another image up there in my mind. What would you say? A mouth? A tongue? A throat? Maybe that last one seems a bit too far-fetched, but sure, throat is part of taste too. Still, now we are probably getting a little ahead of ourselves. Why don’t we start with the tongue? It looks like a nice place to start with all those taste buds, right? Those taste buds, contrary to many people’s beliefs, do not form the small bumps found on our tongue. Not only is this belief incorrect, but it’s also misleading. Those small bumps are actually known as papillae. Although it is correct that we can find taste buds in those papillae, not all papillae contain them. As a matter of fact, the entire middle section of the tongue has not one single taste bud, and yet it holds a large number of papillae.
Taste buds are formed of taste cells which are each responsible for transmitting taste qualities. It would be nice if they were the small bumps or the papillae found on our tongue so that we could see them. Unfortunately, our taste buds are microscopic and thus cannot be seen through our naked eyes. There are, yet, so many of them. We can count an average of 5,000 taste buds on our tongue, but that’s not all. Taste buds can also be found on the inside of our mouth and throat, making the total estimated number much bigger than this, twice the amount to be exact. And in each taste bud, there are approximately 60 taste cells, which brings us to a grand total of 300,000 taste cells on the tongue and 600,000 in the entire mouth.
Fun Fact: Birds have fewer taste buds and lack the specific pain receptors responsible for feeling capsaicin (the active ingredient in hot peppers). However, squirrels do have the receptors. So, if you want to encourage your squirrels to steer clear of your bird feeders, you simply need to add chilli powders to the feed. The squirrels won’t know what hit them, and the birds won’t even notice anything had changed.
Taste buds are quite funny looking. To give you a better idea, imagine peeled oranges. The oranges would be the taste buds and its sections (the carpels), the taste cells. If we look at the top of taste buds, which points towards the inside of our mouths, we can find taste pores. They provide the saliva, which contains water-soluble substances, with access to the cells. Taste hair (gustatory hairs) located within the taste pores region will capture the substances coming in contact with them. Those substances are called tastants and, once caught, will trigger a cascade of events sending a signal to the brain’s thalamic region and then to the first and secondary cortex. This signal will be decoded, by the brain, to find out what substances we ingested.
Fun fact: Our taste cells have a tiny lifespan of approximately ten days, which may probably be for the best. Taste cells truly have a harsh environment to endure, considering all the burning and biting happening to them.
The cells are pretty unique in how they sense the environment. They all possess a specific palette of tastes with different sensitivity to each of them guided by varying concentration thresholds. So, thinking that some tongue regions are only capable of perceiving one taste is entirely wrong. The entire tongue can feel all taste, except for its centre, where it lacks taste buds. There are many taste qualities, and in the most recognized list, there are five: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savoury). That last one is the most recent addition and wasn’t always on that list. As such, we can suppose this list could change again, which it did many times in the past, starting with Aristotle’s list. This great philosopher and polymath theorized that the list had seven elements: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, harsh and astringent. Even though that list may change again, all scientists can agree on one thing: this list will always remain reasonably concise.
All taste qualities can be associated with one representative substance: sugar (sweet), table salt (salty), acids (sour), quinine (bitter) and glutamate (umami). Assuming taste has a survival purpose, we can suggest that each of the preceding taste qualities has a specific role and that is exactly what scientists have tried to determine. The hypothesis regarding sweet and salty is that it often indicates which foods are rich in energy and essential nutrients. As for sour and bitter, it may perhaps reveal that the food is spoiled or poisonous. For umami, things are a bit more obscure. Some claim that umami may help identify protein-rich food, but it still remains to be verified.
It’s all nice to know what the taste buds are capable of, but without the help of our smell, sight and touch, we wouldn’t even be able to tell if it’s a lemon we chewed on. We could only report that it’s sour. That doesn’t sound like much. Does it? To experience the full range of taste, we must be able to see, smell and touch. I can personally tell that bright green food doesn’t look appetizing to me at all. I am thinking here about the green apple flavoured sports drink by Gatorade. I tried it, and I particularly dislike it. It’s not really the sourness that seems to disturb me. It’s really the colour. As for smell, I can assure you that once I could detect the scent of my birthday cake cooking in the oven, I knew it would taste incredible. As for touch; texture, temperature, and pain definitely contribute to my enjoyment. For example, I find that room-temperature water tastes better than freezing cold.
You are now experts in the field of taste, but what if I told you that there is a fruit capable of tricking you into believing that sour is now sweet. Would you believe me? Yes? No? Well, believe me or not, there is such a fruit. Indeed, the miracle fruit contains a substance named after the fruit itself, miraculin, and once ingested, allows you to bite into a lemon and make it taste like the sweetest lemon pie. Besides, there is another plant capable of masking the taste of sweetness. That plant is called Gymnema Sylvestre. Once brewed and added to your sweetened tea, you won’t be able to taste that sweetness anymore. These taste modifiers are an exciting twist to what we learned about taste today. Isn’t it?
I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.
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