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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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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."

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 chile peppers.

"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 ginger."

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