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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.

Training Your Taste

Training yourself to like something you despise seems odd, but whether it's lower salt intake or more fruit and vegetables, sometimes a person needs to eat foods that they may not be fond of. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.

"We can't change our genes, so some food likes or dislikes may be difficult to alter drastically," says Stein. "Repeated exposure can increase relative liking for a food but may not be able to change a disliked food into one that is liked. In other words, exposure may make a disliked food less disliked."

While repeat exposure to a food can decrease dislike, it can also increase liking. For instance, research done at the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that people who stick to a lower-sodium diet over time eventually prefer lower levels of saltiness in their food, explains Stein.

And of course, there are acquired tastes, such as caviar.

"If you really hate something, having it over and over again may not change it," says Bernstein. "But we know people develop tastes for something -- in social settings you have to eat things you may not like but eventually, you acquire a taste for it."

The 5th Taste

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and ... umami?

"Umami is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid found throughout the human body and in protein-containing foods," Stein tells WebMD. "Glutamate elicits a sensation, which is often described as brothy, full-bodied, meaty, and savory. This savory sensation has been termed umami in Japanese, which roughly translates into 'wonderful taste.'"

As a part of Japanese cuisine for more than 100 years, explains Stein, umami is now considered a component of taste around the world.

"To imagine savory taste, think of chicken broth, a ripe beefsteak tomato, or Parmesan cheese," says Stein. "Recent biochemical studies have revealed a separate taste receptor that can detect this amino acid, increasing the likelihood that umami is a separate and distinct taste sensation, which perhaps evolved to ensure adequate consumption of protein."

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