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Making sense of taste
Question of the Day
n allergy or summer cold might make food taste bland, but the sense of taste has little to do with the change.
“Colds affect flavor, which is a combination of taste and smell and mouth feel,” says Paul Breslin, a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in Philadelphia focused on interdisciplinary research, training and communication about taste and smell. He holds a doctorate in experimental psychology.
“You can still taste things, but you lose the ability to smell. Taste and smell integrate in the brain to come up with a unified sensation we call flavor,” Mr. Breslin says.
Flavor, he says, is not the same as taste because the aroma of a food is combined with taste to give thousands of flavors. Flavor derives, in part, from the temperature, texture and sensations in the mouth that come from a food or beverage, he says.
“When you don’t smell, you lose a major part of flavor,” Mr. Breslin says.
Taste — one of the five senses — is largely dependent on the sense of smell, says Dr. Jean Kim, otolaryngologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“If your sense of smell is diminished, your sense of taste is going to diminish,” Dr. Kim says.
Taste occurs when special sensory cells located in the tongue, throat and cheeks respond to the five basic taste qualities, that of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory or umami, says Barry Davis, director of the taste and smell program at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda. He holds a doctorate in neuroscience.
“When you chew food, it releases aromas … that enter the olfactory system and contribute to the flavor of food,” Mr. Davis says.
Taste buds have about 100 taste cells, which have receptors attuned to one of the five taste qualities, Mr. Davis says. Tiny pores at the tip of each taste bud allow chemicals in food and beverages to enter the taste cells, he says.
“In a very real sense, your taste cells are exposed to the outside world,” Mr. Davis says.
Humans have about 10,000 taste buds, as stated in a “Taste Primer” information sheet provided by the Monell Chemical Senses Center.
A common misconception is that these taste buds are located on the tongue only, but they are located throughout the mouth, including the palate, throat and cheeks, Mr. Davis says. Another misconception is that different areas of the tongue can detect certain taste qualities, but each taste cell has receptors attuned to one of the five taste qualities, he says.
“You take these thousands of cells customized and specialized to one of the taste qualities, and you spread them over the mouth,” Mr. Davis says. “The tip of the mouth is not just for sweet, but your whole mouth becomes sensitive to it.”
When taste receptors recognize the taste stimuli, chemical signals are sent from the taste receptor cells to neurons in the brain to distinguish taste quality, Mr. Breslin says.
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