20 Things You Didn't Know About... Taste

From supertasters to the munchies, here's a list of things you might not know about taste. 

By Kirsten Weir|Saturday, September 01, 2012

In truth any area of the tongue can pick up sweet tastes, but parts of the tongue are more sensitive than others. 

Luiz Rocha/Shutterstock

1. Remember the tongue map—the one showing taste receptors for sweet flavors on the tip of the tongue, bitter in the back, and sour on the sides? It’s totally wrong.

2. That bogus map came from an English mistranslation of a German research paper.

3. In truth, any area can pick up any taste (although sensitivity does vary across the tongue).

4. We all know about sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Less widely known is the fifth taste: umami, that savory flavor of soy sauce, tomatoes, and many other foods high in glutamate.

5. Go with your gut: Japanese scientists recently identified umami receptors not only on the tongue but throughout the digestive tract. Their role remains a mystery.

6. Those bumps on your tongue aren’t your taste buds. They are fungiform papillae—“mushroom-shaped nipples,” to any Latin speakers out there—and each houses 50 to 100 buds.

7. Scientists believe there are only a few receptor types each for sweet, sour, salty, and umami tastes. But there are a lot more for bitter (at least 25), as anyone paying alimony is probably aware.

8. Our sensitivity to bitterness may protect us from poisons. Most toxic plant compounds, such as strychnine and cyanide, taste bitter.

9. About 15 to 25 percent of all Americans are supertasters, with more papillae and taste buds than the rest of us.

10. Supertasters can’t stand bitter, nutrient-rich veggies such as broccoli and kale. Taste expert Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida found them more likely to have precancerous colon polyps than people with fewer taste buds.

11. Cheeseburger with a side of amoxicillin? The major nerve carrying taste signals travels through the middle ear on its way to the brain. There may be a link between frequent ear infections and a taste for fatty foods, Bartoshuk thinks.

12. Good taste starts early. The flavors of some foods, such as carrots, garlic, and vanilla, wind up not only in mother’s milk but even in amniotic fluid. Babies prefer foods they first “tasted” in the womb, Julie Mennella at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has shown.

13. Odors inhaled by lactating mothers can affect the flavor of their milk, too. A poorly ventilated dairy barn can lead to funky tastes at the breakfast table.

14. Celery, pork, and truffle mushrooms contain androstenone, an aromatic compound that strongly influences flavor. Half of all people cannot smell it. But about 15 percent find it woody or floral, and the rest think androstenone smells like stale urine.

15. Folks in the latter category generally are not big fans of celery, pork, or truffles.

16. Sweet treats and alcohol fire up many of the same reward circuits in the brain. Kids with a family history of alcoholism prefer more sugar in their food, Mennella found.

17. The science of the munchies? Endocannabinoids—chemicals related to the active ingredient in marijuana—enhance the taste of sweet foods, a team recently reported.

18. Straight edge: The miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum), native to West Africa, contains a glycoprotein called miraculin that binds to taste receptors, making sour foods taste sweet.

19. “Flavor trippers” pop the berry—or a tablet containing miraculin—to make foods like lemons taste as sweet as lemon pie.

20. At the University of Florida, food scientists have genetically engineered tomatoes and strawberries with the miraculin gene. Their goal is to produce low-sugar fruits and vegetables that taste supremely sugary. How sweet is that? 

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