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.
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
Flavor vs. Taste
Flavor and taste seem like the same thing, but hold your nose when you're
eating and you'll quickly draw a distinction.
"Most people think that flavor is the same as taste, but that's not
true," says Stein. "The distinctive flavor of most foods and drinks
comes more from smell than it does from taste."
While sugar has a sweet taste, strawberry is a flavor. While coffee may be
bitter, it's aroma is also all about flavor.
"An airway between the nose and mouth lets people combine aroma with the
five basic tastes to enjoy thousands of flavors," says Stein.
Still not sure of the difference? Stein recommends the jellybean test.
"Take two red jellybeans of differing flavors, such as cherry and
strawberry," Stein tells WebMD. "While holding your nose tightly
closed, pop one of the jellybeans into your mouth and chew. Try to identify the
flavor. You'll know that it's sweet but won't be able to determine whether it's
cherry or strawberry until you let go of your nose and let the olfactory
information whoosh up into your nose."
Flavor also includes texture, temperature, and irritation - such as with
"The spiciness of food is conveyed through a third sensory system known
as chemical irritation," says Stein. "This system involves the
trigeminal nerve, which has thousands of nerve endings located in the nose,
mouth, throat, and eyes. The nerve endings sense and respond to the sting of
ammonia, the coolness of menthol, and the burn of chili peppers or