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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.

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."

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 Supertaster

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 subject."

Who knew taste could be such a meaty subject?

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Reviewed on May 16, 2005

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