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The Science of Taste

Have you ever noticed the small bumps on your tongue? Those tiny structures are papillae, and they contain hundreds of taste buds and thousands of taste receptors. When a substance reacts chemically with those receptors, you get taste.

While taste is a sense we use without thinking, our bodies are actually undertaking a very complex process. Here’s how it works.

What are the 5 tastes?

Sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. Scientists largely agree those are the five tastes our tongues can perceive, with the pleasant, savory sensation of umami only being added in recent years. All taste buds can perceive each of the five tastes, however certain areas of the tongue are more sensitive to certain flavors.

graphic of Tongue Taste Areas Sweet Sour Salty Bitter Umami


Is taste a product of nature or nurture?


Our genes affect how we taste because everyone’s receptors are configured differently.

Variations may explain why you might love cilantro while your friend thinks it tastes like soap. Most people are also born with inherent negative reactions to tastes that might be harmful (dirt, toxic chemicals) and positive reactions to things that taste sweet.

Experience also plays a part, starting in the womb when a child is exposed to certain flavors through the mother’s amniotic fluid. Studies have even found that people whose mothers suffered moderate to severe nausea in early pregnancy tend to like salt more, possibly because they experienced dehydration and electrolyte depletion in the womb. A person’s sense of taste is also influenced by what they’re exposed to as an infant or young child.

Can you acquire a taste for something?

Yes. It doesn’t work for everyone, but repeated exposure to a food you dislike can decrease that distaste. Some people are even able to develop a fondness for that food over time. There are also foods that most people don’t like at first but grow to enjoy.

How much of what you taste is based on what you smell?

A lot — some studies say up to 80%. Because there’s an airway connecting your nose and mouth, your body combines aroma and the five tastes to create thousands of flavors. If you hold your nose while you eat, you may notice you can tell if something is sweet, salty or sour (taste) but not whether it’s cherry, cheese or lemon (flavor).

Women generally have better senses of smell than men.

Does age affect taste?

Yes. Both taste and smell decline as you age, making it harder to detect aromas and easier to over season food.

Why do some people like spicy food?

Spiciness is a chemical irritation of certain nerves in the nose, mouth, throat and eyes. Some people enjoy that sensation for several reasons, including being born with less sensitivity to spice, building up a tolerance to it or growing up eating spicy foods. The receptors that interpret spicy tastes are the same ones that interpret temperature, which is why people often equate tasting spicy food with their mouths “being on fire.”

Do you “eat with your eyes” first?

Yes. One of the original functions of the human brain was to find nutritious foods while avoiding harmful ones, and sight was one of the first senses to help humans do that. Studies have shown that the sight of appealing food can be very powerful for the brain, especially if you’re hungry.

What are supertasters?

Up to 30% of people are thought to be supertasters, or people who have an enhanced genetic ability to detect bitterness and taste flavors more sharply. You can learn how to find out if you’re a supertaster here.


Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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