The science of taste

In his first exclusive article we explore the science of taste, explain how your tastebuds actually work and we dispel the myths surrounding flavour.

the science of taste

A common misconception about taste is that there is a “tongue map” which illustrates the differences in sensitivity across the human tongue for the basic tastes.

The tongue map dates back to research by a German scientist named D.P. Hanig, published in 1901, after he chose to travel the Far East. As he was not familiar with Japanese cuisine, Hanig used volunteers to measure the sensitivity of certain parts of the tongue to the four known basic tastes.

Years later in 1942, Edwin Boring, a psychology historian at Harvard University used the data from Hanig’s subjective experiment and calculated real numbers for the levels of sensitivity from the raw data. The numbers that were calculated only expressed sensitivity to taste in a relative manner but they were misinterpreted by other scientists to assume that the areas of lower (relative) sensitivity were areas of no sensitivity. Thus, the modern tongue-map was born.

Scientists did not dispel this notion of a tongue-map until 1974 when a scientist named Virginia Collings confirmed that all tastes are equally discernible across areas of the tongue. We now know that there are five primary taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter and umami.

  • Sweet – usually indicates energy rich nutrients
  • Umami – the taste of amino acids
  • Salty – allows modulating diet for electrolyte balance
  • Sour – typically the taste of acids
  • Bitter – allows sensing of diverse natural toxins

Our ability to taste comes from molecules (tastants) released during food intake, which stimulates special sensory cells in the mouth and throat. Humans’ sense taste via taste buds, which are numerous sensory cells clustered together. Each cluster contains about 50-150 taste cells.

These chemical tastants dissolve in saliva and are then able to enter the taste buds through pores. They then interact with either with ion channels or the proteins on the surfaces of taste receptors. This triggers stimulation of chemical signals which causes them to be transmitted to the brain via the central nervous system.

Different taste receptor cells are linked to the various taste perceptions, for example:

  • Sweet tastants trigger responses in taste cells by binding to TIR2 and T1R3 proteins.
  • Bitter tastants bind to T2R receptors.
  • Umami tastants bind to T1R1 and T1R3 receptors.
  • Sour and Salty tastants flow through ion channels.

It’s in the brain where specific tastes are identified. As each taste cell has a receptor which responds to one of at least five basic taste qualities, different cells are depolarised, different neurones are contacted and the brain is able to differentiate between the tastes and the magnitude of each taste is calculated.

You may notice that Sweet and Umami use one of the same protein (TIR3) but they do not cause the same taste to be simulated. This is because the tastants are different. Whereas sweet tastants tend to be Mono/Di-saccharides (maltose, sucrose, fructose, glucose, etc), umami’s tastant is glutamate, an amino acid which is present in fish, meat, vegetables, fermented goods and breast milk.

These tastants have different chemical structures and thus interact in a different manner with the same protein. This is why they are able to produce different tastes – the threshold levels for detection of the chemical tastants for the five basic tastes are shown below.

TasteCommon chemical tastantThreshold value for detecting taste
SweetnessSucrose3.42g sucrose
SaltinessNaCl0.58g NaCl
UmamiGlutamate0.10g glutamate
SournessHCl0.033g HCl
BitternessQuinine0.0026g quinine

Continue reading to find out why our taste sensitivity varies so much…