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.
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
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
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
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