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How Does the Sense of Taste Work?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 23, 2024
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The sense of taste begins with the taste buds, located on top of the fungiform papillae, or the large bumps on the tongue. Other taste receptor cells can be found on the palate and in the throat, but the tongue has the most. The fungiform papillae are shaped similar to mushrooms and sometimes swell a little when stimulated. Alongside the fungiform papillae are the filiform papillae, little brush-shaped protrusions that usually lack receptor cells.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the tongue is not divided into taste sections. This is a myth based on a mistranslation of a German book which has been perpetuated in schools since the early 1900s. If you put a tiny bit of salt or sugar on different sections of your tongue, you'll see that you can taste it anywhere. A healthy diet should allow your senses to experience the best stimuli in the most balanced way possible.

The five acknowledged tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Umami could just as easily be called savory, but it is named after the Japanese word for the same thing because a Japanese researcher first discovered it in 1908. This discovery co-occurred with the chemical isolation and subsequent marketing of MSG as a flavor enhancer. This flavor might also be the biggest reason why people who are working on losing weight find it difficult to say no to savory dishes.

Just as important to the sensation of this sense are the olfactory cells in the nose which detect scent. What we perceive as taste is a complex interplay of smelling and tongue-tasting. The nose, tongue, eyes, and brain all evolved together to ensure that we consume the good stuff and keep out the bad stuff: rotten foods, poison foods, and other indigestibles. These are also the same senses that make us imagine mouthwatering foods after playing sports, working out, or going out for a jog.

An important and often unmentioned component of this sense is the gustatory cortex, a section of the surface of the brain near the back, which processes taste inputs. This section of the brain is the reason why a meal after being active seems to taste better than if you eat something while still full. It is located next to the parts of the brain which control chewing and swallowing. About 25% of the population are "supertasters", experiencing a heightened sense, partially due to a greater density of taste buds and partially due to subtle brain differences in how this sense is processed. This may pose a problem for some kids, who can be easily overwhelmed through their taste buds. If your child is a supertaster, you may want to schedule a consult with a pediatric nutritionist.

InfoBloom is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated InfoBloom contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon265017 — On Apr 30, 2012

This article was really helpful with my research.

By anon210090 — On Aug 29, 2011

Apart from taste, why do some people experience certain food textures as gross?

I personally don't want anything slippery in my mouth unless it's a gummy bear.

My father didn't like this at all, and offered to have me hypnotized to like onions.

By anon160636 — On Mar 16, 2011

It is really weird that people might not see the same color. What if I see green and for you my green would be blue, but you would still call it green?

By anon42675 — On Aug 23, 2009

Do we share the same sensation when we come to sweet and bitter? in fact we perceive them in the same way right?

By anon33687 — On Jun 10, 2009

For some reason with most foods i eat, i cough and gag at the taste. Even with a slight change to foods I love, I still don't like it. Is it possible that my sense of taste is causing this?

Anonymous, 14

By EQoverIQ — On Jul 20, 2008

anon15742: i think that most people will agree that lemons are sour, a lollipop is sweet, and salt is, well, salty. i'm sure that everyone has differences in how they perceive slight nuances in taste, and our individuality also influences taste preferences. i've heard of "super tasters," who taste things much more intensely than the average person.

By anon15742 — On Jul 20, 2008

Do we have the same sensation experience of taste? since we belong to same species? or does everyone has different taste perception? How does we define sweet? how do i know the taste I taste is sweet?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated InfoBloom contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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