Salt, sweet, bitter, sour, umami (savory)—we’re all familiar with the many different tastes foods and drinks can offer us. If you like to cook, you might even devote a significant amount of time to creating the tastes that you like best. But once it hits your tongue, what exactly makes that experience so desirable?
Taste, like our other senses, evolved as a part of survival. Through taste, we can sense what’s safe to eat and what might harm us. But in the modern day, taste gets engaged for fun far more often than it does for safety.
To make that next sip of complex wine or bite of hand-selected cheese even better, let’s learn how taste works! Prepare to eat and drink your way through the holiday season with this essential guide to the sense of taste.
First, Something Tasty Hits Your Tastebuds
The physical process of taste begins at the surface of the tongue, where your tastebuds are.
As you probably learned in grade school, the tastebuds live inside those little bumps that cover your tongue. Tastebuds include a few different types of cells, but the taste receptor cells are what’s responsible for creating the sense of taste.
The taste receptors in your tastebuds look for chemicals that correspond to specific tastes, such as sweet or salty. Then, information about those particular tastes gets turned into electrical impulses and sent through neural pathways to reach your brain.
You may have heard that different parts of your tongue are responsible for sensing different tastes. While we can detect at least five known taste categories (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory), we don’t use separate parts of our tongues to do so. The tip and sides of your tongue are more taste-sensitive overall, but any part of your tongue can detect any taste.
Some people are also more sensitive to taste than others, as some have more tastebuds than others. Then, there are the supertasters—people who experience flavors with much more intensity than most. While being a supertaster might sound cool, it’s often difficult for these people to enjoy foods that other people like—they might perceive even bland foods as tasting too strong.
Next, Your Other Senses Weigh In
Taste isn’t the only factor that you experience in eating and drinking. If you could only taste your food, the experience would probably seem pretty boring.
But when you eat and drink, your process of touch also gets involved, giving you information about the consistency of what you’re consuming, and whether it’s hot or cold. The combination of taste, temperature, and texture together creates a powerful experience of consuming something delicious.
What about when you taste something spicy or “hot” in flavor? That’s actually not your taste buds at work: your sense of touch is giving a pain response due to the burning sensation these foods cause.
Your nose also gets involved to create the experience of flavor. What we think of as flavor is not the same thing as the sense of taste.
Without the other senses, you might still be able to use your sense of taste, but you wouldn’t experience flavor in nearly the same way. Just think of how foods tend to taste dull when your nose is stuffy—that’s because your sense of smell isn’t available to assist your sense of taste.
The sense of smell doesn’t only get engaged when you sniff a tasty meal before taking a bite. There’s also a link to your nose through the back of your mouth, which lets your olfactory system kick in while you chew food, adding to the sensation of flavor.
Finally, Your Brain Decides What the Flavor Is
In your brain, information from all these different senses gets put together to make sense of the flavor you’re experiencing. Electrical impulses representing smell, touch, and taste make their way to the relevant parts of the brain to get decoded.
The impulses from your tastebuds ultimately arrive at the gustatory cortex, where they get processed. Meanwhile, the other parts of your brain work with the senses of smell and touch to put together the full picture of what we call “taste,” or more accurately, flavor.
The sense of taste can be both practical and glamorous at the same time. We might taste a bit of aging food to make sure it’s still good enough to eat—practical, for sure. But we might also indulge our sense of taste with a luxe home-cooked meal or a piece of fancy chocolate—a more glamorous way to use this sense.
Either way, it’s a sense we use every day. While you appreciate your sense of taste, don’t forget to thank your senses of touch and smell as well: they’re all key to making consuming food and drink an experience we enjoy.