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.
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
Taste Over Time
As we get older, our bodies slow down. So, too, do our taste buds.
"Our tastes buds have a very short life, and they turn over every few
days," says Mary Ellen Camire, PhD, a professor in the department of Food
Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Maine. "But that rate
slows as you grow older, so your taste sharpness declines."
So if a person prefers a certain amount of salt on food, over time, he'll
have to use more and more salt to get the desired taste as his taste buds slow
in their regeneration process.
"Smell tends to decline with age, too," Camire tells WebMD.
"Since smell is a very important part of food, as that declines so does the
overall sense of taste."
The sense of taste is powerful enough, but throw in supertasters, and you're
at a whole new level of sensory perception.
"A supertaster is someone who has an enhanced genetic ability to detect
bitterness," says Camire, who is also a food science communicator with the
Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago. "People who have these genes
pick up bitterness in addition to everything else. There's a lot of research
going on around the role genetics play in taste; it's a contentious
Who knew taste could be such a meaty subject?