The Science of Taste

The science of taste is much more complex than simply flavor alone.

There are many factors at play when it comes to explaining your love for roasted red peppers but distaste for salmon, or why your partner likes dill but hates cilantro. Although the research that exists on the subject falls short compared to that of the other human senses, it is continually expanding.

Why do you like Brussels sprouts but your children can't stand them? What factors go into determining what we like about food, and what we don't? In this article, learn about the many ingredients involved in the science of taste.

The Five Tastes

The four traditional tastes are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Yet just after the turn of the millennium in 2002, scientists agreed to recognize a fifth taste – umamni – and it was added to the list of the basic four. It was during the late 1800s that Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered this unique and delicious flavor.

Four Traditional Flavors

The four traditional flavors are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But unfortunately, the one that often takes center stage in America’s food industry and restaurants is salty. Salt is cheap, addictive, and deadly.

He later published in a journal for the Chemical Society of Tokyo that it was glutamic acid, according to a National Public Radio report. However, Ikeda choose to rename the molecule and called it umami, which translates to yummy or delicious. Tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and soy are examples of foods with natural umami. Today this fifth taste is also referred to as savory.

Of these tastes, perhaps the most common in the U.S. is salty. That’s hugely unfortunate because excess salt (sodium-chloride) is a major contributor to chronic, life-crippling diseases like hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.

In the U.S., salt is used in excess in nearly every restaurant dish, bakery item, and even home cooked meal, and added to just about every packaged food on the market. It’s cheap, it’s addictive, and the amount we consume is jaw-dropping. The average American adult eats about about 3,400 mg of sodium daily. Research has shown that fairly modest reductions, about 1,200 mg daily, would result in dramatic reductions in cardiovascular events and medical costs.

Because salt enhances one’s sensitivity to food, it’s widely believed that salt makes food taste better. And thus, eliminating salt leads people to believe that food will no longer taste as good, asserted the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

However, for the past four decades at the Pritikin Longevity Center, award-winning chefs have successfully taken salt out of the diet and are still able to provide mouth-watering, delicious menu options each day. Though the Pritikin Eating Plan advises avoiding added salt and foods high in sodium, taste and flavor are never compromised. Instead, flavorfully rich spices such as fresh dill, cilantro, onion, lemon, garlic, and black pepper are used for naturally delicious tastes. Seasonings such as salsa, dried mustard, hot red pepper flakes, balsamic vinegar, low-sodium tomato sauce, low-sodium marinades and low-sodium seasoning blends are other tasty alternatives that taste just as good – if not better – than salt.

Umami is the fifth basic taste

Something new! In 2002, scientists agreed to recognize a fifth taste – umamni – and it was added to the list of the basic four. Tomatoes and mushrooms are examples of foods with natural umami. Today this fifth taste is also referred to as savory.

Science of Taste | Additional Factors

What exactly is taste? In relation strictly to science, the physical and chemical aspects of food create taste. Humans perceive flavor through sensory cells that live inside the 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds on the adult tongue, according to the National Institutes of Health. Each one of these cells has a varying level – 1 through 10 – of sensitivity to each of the basic tastes. Given the 10 levels and thousands of sensory cells, the possibilities for flavors are seemingly endless. But that’s not all.

“An understanding and description of our sensory perception of food requires input from many different scientific disciplines: in addition to the natural and life sciences, human sciences, social sciences, as well as the arts, each contributes their perspective on what we call taste,” Ole Mouritsen, professor of biophysics at the University of Southern Denmark wrote in the BioMed Central Flavour Journal.

Taste is also largely influenced by one’s culture, learning, emotions, and all other human senses. Smell, touch, and even social concepts have an impact on flavor and taste. Memory, perception, and tradition, as well as gastronomy, work in conjunction to create an individual’s experience when taking that first bite of a warm meal, concluded Mouritsen.

The adult tongue has 2,000 to 4,000 taste buds. Taste is also largely influenced by one’s culture, learning, emotion, and all other human senses. Smell, touch, and even social concepts have an impact on flavor and taste.

Science of Taste | Flavor Through the Ages

Though some people continue to enjoy their favorite foods over the years, a person’s sense of taste does change over time. Sensitivity, perception and like or dislike of flavors are much different for children than adults, explained researcher of taste and Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University, Robin Dando, PhD. In an interview, Dando told the Institute of Food Technologists that children are more likely to enjoy strong degrees of sweet, sour, and saltiness than adults. Children are typically averse to bitter tastes, and thus, are less likely than adults to enjoy vegetables. While young children will most always go for the sweet, as people age, they grow to appreciate more complex tastes.

Our Sense of Taste Changes Over Time

As we grow older, we appreciate more complex tastes. And we can adapt to healthier palates, quickly. Guests at the Pritikin Center change their tastes and enjoy healthier foods within one week.

However, as smell and taste begin to diminish with time, after the age of 60 sensitivity to levels of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami decline as well, maintained the National Library of Medicine. The number of taste buds on the human tongue decreases each year, and those that remain typically begin to shrink. Smell, which is also closely tied to the way you taste, will begin to fade close to the age of 70. The loss of both can decrease your desire to eat. “Yet at Pritikin, our guests find flavor and taste exciting again as their preference for new flavors that are a part of healthy cooking begins to soar,” notes Pritikin’s Director of Nutrition Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD.

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