Tasting is something we do everyday but many of the things we think we know about taste are actually wrong. So let the debunking begin!
Myth #1: You taste food with your tongue.
Fact: Your sense of taste involves your tongue AND your nose. When you are sick with a cold, food doesn’t taste very good. This is not because your taste buds aren’t working-it is because your nose isn’t working. To test this, close your eyes, plug your nose and pop a flavoured candy in your mouth. Can you tell which flavour it is? Then unplug your nose and see if you know. What you are experiencing when you unplug is retronasal olfaction (or smelling the back of the nose). Many flavours in food are released as gases while you chew, which then waft into your nose through the back of your mouth. In fact 80% to 90% of what we “taste” is actually detected by your nose.
Myth #2: There are four basic tastes.
Fact: There are actually at least five tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Umami (Japanese for “pleasant, savory taste”) is probably the term you are unfamiliar with. Umami is the rich, earthy taste you get from foods containing natural glutamate such as seaweed, fish sauce, meat, mushrooms, aged cheese and even breast milk. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common additive used to add umami taste to food. Although umami was discovered by a Japanese chemist in 1908, it wasn’t accepted as a fifth taste (it was thought to be a flavour enhancer) until 2009 when glutamate receptors were discovered on the human tongue.
Myth #3: The front of your tongue is where you taste sweet things and the back is where you taste bitter things.
Fact: All five tastes can be detected all over your tongue. You may have seen a taste map of the tongue in a text book or on the internet. But it is wrong. The taste map was created in 1901 by a German scientist who simply asked volunteers to indicate where certain tastes were strongest; not very scientific at all. Since then, detailed studies using modern equipment have found receptors for all five tastes all over the tongue. However, there are slightly more receptors for certain tastes in certain areas; bitter tends to be detected most strongly, but not exclusively, at the back of the tongue.
Myth #4: Artificial flavour doesn’t taste right because it has too many chemicals in it.
Fact: Artificial flavour doesn’t taste right because it has too FEW chemicals in it. I got into an argument once with another scientist over artificial strawberry flavour. I insisted that it didn’t taste quite right and he insisted that since it contains the exact same flavour chemicals as a real strawberry, it should taste exactly the same. Turns out we were both right. While artificial strawberry flavour does contain some of the chemicals that give a real strawberry its flavour, it doesn’t have all of them. Artificial flavour contains about 5 to 30 flavour and scent molecules but a real strawberry has over 300! The reason artificial flavour doesn’t have all those chemicals is because it would be too expensive to produce. So if you’ve never eaten a fresh strawberry right off the plant, artificial strawberry flavour might taste just fine to you. But to someone who grows strawberries in their backyard (that would be me) it doesn’t quite cut it. Plus it always reminds me of the taste of those fluoride treatments you get at the dentist!
Myth #5: Fruits are sweet and vegetables are bitter.
Fact: While it is true that many fruits contain sugar, some fruits are not sweet at all. Botanically speaking, a fruit is a structure that contains, or is attached to, one to many seeds-it has nothing to do with what it tastes like. Many things that we call vegetables are actually fruits including avocados, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash. The taste of a fruit is influenced by the kind of animal that normally disperses it. Since some animals like juicy, bitter, sour or fatty tastes, not all fruits are sweet.
Vegetables (defined as roots, tubers, bulbs, stems and leaves) may be bitter due to the presence of toxins that discourage animals from eating them. However, humans have bred modern vegetables to be less bitter (and therefore less toxic). For example, wild carrot root is bitterer than modern varieties. Unfortunately, breeding out the bitter compounds (which are often natural pesticides) and increasing the sweet ones make our crop plants more desirable to insect pests.
Myth #6: Food tastes the same to everyone.
Fact: Everyone has a different number of taste buds; the number that you have controls the volume of your food. People with lots of taste buds (super-tasters) tend to dislike really bitter and spicy foods (because they taste louder) while people with fewer taste buds (non-tasters) may find them pleasant or stimulating. Black coffee and dark chocolate are two foods that non-tasters usually like and super-tasters dislike. Bitter vegetables like kale may also be disliked by super-tasters. This may explain, at least partly, why some people are picky eaters, although cultural factors are also extremely important. So the saying “everyman to his taste” is most certainly true.