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The Science Behind How We Taste

Everyone has a preference on taste, but why? Throw in a pinch of nature, a dash of nurture, and the senses of smell, sight, and sound, and that's the science behind taste.
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Why does one person love blue cheese and another cringe at the thought? How can someone eat Brussels sprouts by the bunch and someone else prefer only peas? Taste, a sense that adds flavor to the world, is a complicated but oh-so-important part of life.

"The sense of taste is a sensory system like the eye," says Ilene Bernstein, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "The tongue is sensitive to different tastes -- sweet, sour, bitter, or salty. Taste as a sense is the perception of a combination of these chemical signals on the tongue."

While it sounds simple, taste involves so much more than these four simple categories that we learned about in grade school. From genes, to environment, to a fifth taste referred to as umami, experts explain to WebMD the science behind taste.

Nature and Nurture

Taste is a product of more than just buds on your tongue. It's a combination of how a food smells, looks, and sounds. When we eat celery, it has to crunch. When we drink coffee, we expect a certain aroma. And of course, how a person perceives taste also has to do with nature and nurture.

"Taste is a product of our genes and our environment," says Leslie J. Stein, PhD, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "Our food preferences are determined by multiple factors, including genes, experience, and age."

Genes play a part by giving a person a predetermined taste preference, and our environment is a factor in learning new tastes.

"Recent research has demonstrated that our genes help to determine how we detect the basic tastes by influencing the configuration of taste receptors," says Stein. "Part of why you might like broccoli while your best friend finds it bitter is because you have different genes, which code for different bitter receptors."

Likewise, "Experience is also an important determinant of food preferences," says Stein. "For example, infants and young children need to learn what foods are safe to eat. Even before birth, information about specific flavors of mothers' diets passes to infants through amniotic fluid."

Sweet or Salty?

Genetics and upbringing aside, it's not surprising that everyone has at least a little bit of a sweet tooth.

"I would say that as a species, almost everyone has some degree of a sweet preference," says Bernstein. "We are born having automatic positive responses to sweetness."

When it comes to salt preference, an unlikely factor plays a role.

"Salt has a lot of variability in terms of preference, and I don't think we know too much about it," says Bernstein. "But we did do this amazing study some years ago that found one factor that contributes to salt preference is whether or not a person's mother experienced severe to moderate morning sickness."

Bernstein, who co-authored the study, which was published in Appetite, says researchers found that the loss of electrolytes and sodium during morning sickness has an impact on the offspring's salt preference.

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