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A matter of taste

August 2013

Food!Today most of us have a good idea of healthy foods and what we should be eating to keep fit and strong.  But of course not all the foods that are good for us appeal to everyone - for instance, some people love beetroot while others hate it. Often it is purely a matter of taste - and this is a surprisingly complex area.

Taste is one of our five traditional senses, but understandably it is not generally considered as important as some of our other senses such as sight and hearing. This has meant that taste has received less attention by scientists and researchers.

Basically taste is the sensation we experience when something in the mouth reacts chemically with our saliva to activate our taste buds in a specific way.

Taste buds, or gustatory calyculi, are concentrated on the top area of the tongue. We have anything up to 5000 or even 8000 taste buds nestling here, concentrated in groups in the papillae, or little bumps that we can actually see in the top of the tongue. There are also some taste buds on the roof, sides and back of the mouth, and a few in the throat as well.

Each one of these many taste buds contains between 50 to 100 taste receptor cells. Sticking out of each of these receptor cells is a tiny taste hair which checks out your saliva as you eat and chew.  They react to the different chemicals in your saliva as you eat and send off relevant messages depending on their reaction.

 If the food contains say alkali metal or hydrogen ions, then the taste buds will react to this by sending a specific signal to the end of a nerve fibre which will then transfer the impulses along cranial nerves to a special region in the brainstem.

The impulses are then related to the thalamus and on to a specific area of the gustatory cortex which will alert us to a specific perception of taste. In this case, the final sensation given out would be saltiness and sourness; but each food carries its own specific blueprint which will react differently with the taste buds to cause a different sensation.

Usually taste is categorized into five main segments: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umani. This last one is as recently identified taste section that comes from a Japanese word and covers savoury taste.

But it is not just taste from the tongue that gives us our overall perception of the food we are eating. Smell is very important as well. Molecules from the food will move through the back of the throat and reach olfactory nerve endings in the roof of the nose. Here the molecules bind to these nerve endings which then signal the olfactory bulb to send smell messages to the brain.

It is the combination of the results coming from the tongue and the nose that will give an overall view of the food you are eating.

The eyes also play a part - see something that looks bad or disgusting and you will trigger a reaction that will reject the food often before you have tasted it.

Taste gives us a sense of protection. Often something that tastes disgusting would create a problem if we were to continue to eat it.

Taste really is a very complex area and is so interlinked with other body processes that sadly, just because something tastes great, it doesn’t necessarily mean that our body actually needs it. 

And if you''re wondering whether some of your favourite foods might have any hidden benefits why not take a look at all our Health Food of The Month articles


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