Health Nugget – The Importance of the Sense of Taste

As we all know, taste is a matter of, well taste … But what exactly is taste? Taste is one of our five senses. The sense of taste is really just our ability to perceive a flavor of a given food or dish with our tongue in association with our senses of smell and touch. Our tongues have the ability to distinguish between five basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (meaty or savory). A couple of additional tastes, probably more likely sensed in association with our sense of smell, are pungent and astringent. The rich diversity of taste sensations arise from the wide-ranging combinations of these five basic tastes, such as the sweet-and-sour taste we experience when we drink sweet lemonade or sweet-and-sour sauce with a favorite Chinese dish.

For a long time, scientists believed that it is the taste buds, located at different points on our tongue, that help us experience taste, but additional research has disproven this belief. While it is true that the edge of the tongue has more taste buds than the base and is thus more sensitive, the tongue is not divided into different types of taste. The one exception to this rule is the bitter taste, which is located chiefly at the rear of the tongue.

Approximately 10,000 taste buds,  pear-shaped structures with millions of receptors (sensory cells), are the components in the tongue that register taste. They are located around small structures on the upper surface of the tongue, the roof of the mouth, and back of the throat known as the gustatory papillae. Adults have between 2,000–4,000 of these papillae on their tongue.

Thanks to a special nerve in the mouth and throat, we are able to experience “hot” which is really not a flavor, but is perceived through free nerve endings in this nerve. In this way we are able to tell if a dish seasoned with a hot spice such as pepper, chili or curry is unpleasant or even painful.

Sensory cells have a lifespan of just ten days, but are constantly being renewed. However, as we age, our sense of taste deteriorates because the renewal process slows so that the number of sensory cells declines over the course of time. But here’s a tip: make generous use of fresh herbs when seasoning your food. This enables us to continue to have a rewarding taste experience as we age thanks to our other senses, including our sense of smell.

Whenever we eat a salty soup or a sweet dessert, the sensory cells in the taste buds are activated and taste signals travel from the mouth by way of the cranial nerves to the medulla oblongata in the brainstem to the thalamus and on to the cortex, where you become aware of what you are tasting and can then respond appropriately. Appropriately would mean if it tastes good, you swallow and enjoy it, but if it tastes bad or harmful, you spit it out. Whew! Those taste signals are really hard workers.

Taste, however, is actually a multisensory phenomenon. While the sense of taste gives basic information about sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory, most of the food experience, how a blueberry tastes different than a raspberry, for example, depends on the sense of smell.

When we chew food or sip an aromatic beverage, chemicals are converted to vapor in the air passages connecting the mouth with the back of the nose. This stimulates olfactory receptors and allows us to realize the subtleties of flavor. Other aspects of the taste experience, such as food texture and temperature, engage additional senses.

It is interesting that while humans have five senses—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch—the knowledge of sight and hearing has played a more important role in understanding how the brain interprets sensory impressions.

However, Dr. Preet Bano Singh, Postdoctoral Fellow on the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Oslo, finds it quite surprising that the senses of taste and smell receive so little attention because taste is actually essential to life.

“If the sense of taste is impaired, it may often negatively affect [a person’s] food intake, nutritional status and consequently health condition. Senses of smell and taste are vital in identification of valuable nutrients in the environment, procurement of adequate energy and central to survival. That is an important reason why research into taste and smell should receive just as much attention as the other senses,” says Dr. Singh.

Although we have been talking about the senses of taste and smell, the enjoyment of food involves more than just these two senses. The different sounds that accompany food preparation, like boiling in a pot, running the blender, a knife slicing through an onion or the timer going off when the food is fully cooked, involves our sense of hearing. Our sense of sight allows us to appreciate the presentation of well-prepared food, including the play of various colors, on our plate. The sense of touch is also involved as the food touches our tongue and we experience the different textures and nuances of the food as we chew.

What a wonderful God we have! We must eat to survive and yet He made not only good, nutritious food, but He did so with such a variety of flavors, and made them in such a way so as to be a pleasant experience in the preparing as much as in the eating.

Yes indeed, what a wonderful God!

Sources:; The Dana Foundation; Senses of Taste and Smell More Important Than We Think by Astrid Skiftesvik Bjørkeng, University of Oslo