Taste is fascinating, complex, and it turns out, very misunderstood. I love that the sense of taste is getting play time, but often myself dismayed by the the generalizations and inaccuracies. Here’s my attempt to set the record straight.
The most common error I see in news stories today about taste is the confusion with taste and flavor. All five senses contribute to the creation of flavor (i.e. the sensory perception as you eat) in the brain. But don’t fall victim to confusing taste with flavor. We may say something “tastes” good, but what we really mean is that we like all the sensations that come together to make flavor. So no, texture and smell do not affect how we taste food, they affect how we perceive food as a whole. That is flavor.
We all know about the 5 tastes: salt, sour, umami, sweet and bitter. But what about the chance that there are more? I agree with Michael Tordoff, a behavioral geneticist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia: “There is no accepted definition of a basic taste. The rules are changing as we speak.” In fact there was a great session that Dr. Tordoff led at the annual taste and smell meeting (Association for Chemoreception Sciences) called “Basic Tastes- Why Five?” This innovative session gave the podium to scientists pushing the limits on defining new tastes, and reiterated the rules we currently have in order to determine what is really a “taste” and what is not. While it’s true that there is no 100% accepted definition, there are some basic guidelines that are pretty widely held concerning if a “taste” is really a “taste”:
- The is a evolutionary benefit to recognizing the taste (makes sense that we have it)
- There is a defined stimuli that causes a person to identify the taste (there is a tried and true food/chemical that causes the taste)
- There is a specialized transduction mechanism for the taste (how the tongue gets the info to the brain is unique to the taste)
- The signal must originate and be conveyed by the taste system (i.e. the tongue and associated cranial nerves)
- The taste must be perceptible and unique (you must actually taste it and it must be unique)
- The taste must evoke a response (tasting causes a reaction… i.e. Yum! or Bleech!)
Fat, calcium (and maybe metals!) all may one day be considered true tastes, and unsaturated (think healthy) fats are leading the way to break into the core 5.