In his first article for Kitchen Geekery, Alex will explain the science behind our tastebuds and dispel a few myths in the process.
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.
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.
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:
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.
|Taste||Common chemical tastant||Threshold value for detecting taste|