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How Does the Sense of Taste Work?

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.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

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 nose, which detects scent, also assists in the sense of taste.
The nose, which detects scent, also assists in the sense of taste.

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.

The cone-shaped filiform papillae are the most abundant type of papillae on the tongue.
The cone-shaped filiform papillae are the most abundant type of papillae on the tongue.

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.

The tongue is not divided into taste sections.
The tongue is not divided into taste sections.

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.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime InfoBloom contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime InfoBloom contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon265017

This article was really helpful with my research.

anon210090

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.

anon160636

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?

anon42675

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

anon33687

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

EQoverIQ

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.

anon15742

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?

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    • The nose, which detects scent, also assists in the sense of taste.
      By: rufar
      The nose, which detects scent, also assists in the sense of taste.
    • The cone-shaped filiform papillae are the most abundant type of papillae on the tongue.
      By: Sebastian Kaulitzki
      The cone-shaped filiform papillae are the most abundant type of papillae on the tongue.
    • The tongue is not divided into taste sections.
      By: snapgalleria
      The tongue is not divided into taste sections.
    • The sense of taste begins with taste buds, which are located on the tongue.
      By: Alliance
      The sense of taste begins with taste buds, which are located on the tongue.