Everything You Wanted To Know About Taste Buds, But Were Afraid To Ask

Let's take a plate of steamed broccoli. To Tom and Jane, it looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. But as soon as it goes in their mouths, Tom is in heaven while Jane is desperately looking for something, anything, to get this vile taste of her mouth.

(for the record, I'm with Jane)

Of our five senses, taste is perhaps the least understood, and food researchers are making new discoveries about how our sense of taste works every day. Why does one person find broccoli delicious and the other repellent? What makes us crave one food over another? And what's with those old taste bud maps?

  • It is generally believed that taste evolved to help our ancestors determine which foods were good to eat and which weren't – for the caveman on the go, it helped to know if a food was salty (good, as the body needs sodium chloride), sweet (carbohydrates for energy), sour (could be poisonous!) or bitter (could really be poisonous!
  • Ironically, now that we don't have to worry about random foods containing deadly toxins so much anymore, we actually seek out foods that taste sour or bitter. Take that, evolution!
  • You may know about the four major tastes, but have you heard about the fifth taste? It's called umami, from the Japanese for “pleasant taste” or “savory taste.” On this side of the world, it's sometimes called just savory, but the English language being the thieving crow of the linguistic world, when it finds a word it likes, it just takes it. So umami it is. Umami taste receptors look for glutamate, which means protein, which, again, was somethingour ancestors definitely wanted in their diet. That savory taste you get from aged Parmesan, tomatoes, meats, or soy sauce, comes from umami.
  • If that weren't enough, some researchers think they have found a sixth taste, one that detects calcium, which, again, would be something our ancestors would want a lot of. How does it taste? Supposedly, “calcium-y.”
  • Do you remember those taste bud maps in third grade, the ones that showed which part of the tongue our food sensors were? Yeah, they're completely wrong. You can taste all the major tastes on any portion of your tongue. In fact, you don't just have taste buds on your tongue, they're on the roof and sides of your mouth and throat as well.  
  • “Supertasters” do exist. Roughly one-quarter of the American population has this ability, which can make foods like cruciferous vegetables, carbonated beverages, and coffee taste even more bitter and unpalatable. That may be why Jane can't stand the taste of broccoli. Or, she may simply not like broccoli. Picky eaters are not necessarily supertasters, and vice versa.
  • Speaking of picky eaters, babies are with more taste buds than adults, and have a fully developed sense of taste from birth. They may even have acquired preferences for certain foods by swallowing amniotic fluid in the womb; so if Mom likes pepperoni pizza, baby might as well. Conversely, if Mom doesn't like strained peas, well, you can probably put two and two together. There might be another reason, though, for a fussy eater...
  • Have you ever wondered why food doesn't taste as good while you have a cold? That's because smell is inextricably linked with taste. Try this fun experiment: close your eyes, hold your nose, and eat something and see if you can tell what it is. Odds are, you won't. Smell is so intricately tied in with taste that when your sense of smell is knocked out, so is your sense of taste. Now eat your chicken soup.
  • Genetics, too, plays a role in taste. Some people are genetically predisposed to liking and disliking certain foods. Cilantro, for example, tastes like soap to about 20% of the population.
  • You can “retrain” your taste buds to like certain foods, like broccoli – even the pickiest eater as a child can become a risk taker. Broccoli, for example, pairing it with fatty cheese, or roasting it to bring out its natural sugars to sweeten it, can make it more palatable and, eventually, more likeable. Conversely, if you eat something that makes you sick, like mayonnaise that may have been left out on the counter a bit too long, you may feel like avoiding that food for a while.
  • The average adult has somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 10,000 taste buds, and they renew themselves every two weeks or thereabouts, so if you're worried about burning your tongue with that too-hot coffee, worry not, they'll grow back.
  • That said, we do lose taste buds as we get older, which can make food taste blander as we slouch toward middle age and beyond. This may be why some people gravitate to spicier foods as they get older.
  • Speaking of that, what makes spicy food so spicy? Chili peppers and other spicy foods contains a chemical called capsaicin, basically tricks your taste buds into thinking they're on fire. I don't just mean figuratively, capsaicin makes your tongue send signals to your brain this it is quite literally on fire. It may seem counterintuitive to try to make your mouth thinking it has flames shooting out of it, but that response also causes the body to release endorphins, your natural painkillers. It may not quite be a runner's high, but those endorphins still feel good.

Scientists are making new discoveries about taste every day. There are glucose receptors, for example, that were previously thought to be only in the stomach and intestines, that turn out to be present in the tongue as well. 

So, next time you're trying to choke down some broccoli, you may not be able to get out of eating it, but you at least know why it is you don't like it.  

You can see if Mom buys it, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

By Dave Meddish, Live Superfoods team

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