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The sense of taste is a complex sensory system that allows us to detect and enjoy a variety of flavors in the food we eat. It starts with taste buds, which are clusters of specialized sensory cells located on the tongue, roof of the mouth, and throat. These cells, known as gustatory cells, have receptors that bind to taste molecules in food, such as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory). When these receptors are stimulated, they send signals through the gustatory nerves to the brain, where the perception of taste is formed. According to a study published in the journal Nature, humans have around 10,000 taste buds, and each can be replaced approximately every two weeks, ensuring sensitivity to the subtleties of different tastes.
However, taste is not a solo act; it's a multisensory experience. Our sense of smell works closely with taste to create the full flavor profile of what we eat. This is why food can taste bland when we have a cold. The olfactory receptors in the nose pick up volatile compounds that contribute to flavor. Moreover, texture and temperature also play significant roles in how we perceive taste. For instance, the same food can taste different when served hot or cold. The interplay of these senses makes every meal a rich sensory experience, highlighting the intricate nature of how we perceive and enjoy our food.
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.