By Molly Dickinson
No matter the culture, humans are defined in part by what and how we eat. So what is our sense of taste all about?
Tangy. Zesty. Peppery. Piquant. Mellow. Sugary. Buttery. Burnt. Delicious. Luscious. Mouthwatering. The English language alone reveals hundreds of words used to describe the way things taste. Close your eyes and imagine your favorite food on your tongue. Can you almost sense the silky, bittersweetness of dark chocolate? That sharp creamy-rich bite of warm macaroni and cheese? How about the gloriously greasy, salty, smoky crunch of crisp, crumbly bacon?
There’s no doubt that we appreciate the pleasures conferred by our sense of taste on a daily basis (for many of us, it’s called dessert). But beyond that elongated ‘mmm’ at the dinner table, our sense of taste is doing a lot more (and, in some ways, a lot less) than we give it credit for.
To begin with, we should acknowledge that almost all of what we know of our sense of taste is not actually taste at all. Ninety percent of “taste” actually occurs when dissolved molecules of the foods we eat travel from our mouths up to our olfactory receptors, where we, in fact, smell them instead. Given that our sense of smell is directly tied to the emotional and memory center of our brains, it’s no wonder we can “taste” the love and nostalgia baked into a slice of Mom’s apple pie.
Of course, simply smelling that slice of pie can’t compare to actually inhaling it with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream, and for that we have yet another sense to thank: touch. When combined with the power of smell and our ability to register an astounding range of temperatures and textures—from warm and flakey to frosty and creamy—it’s easy to see why most of us have given serious thought to a “last meal,” as opposed to a “last sound” or even a “last sight.”
But before we delve too deeply into why we taste, let’s us first examine how we are able to taste in the first place.
Our tongues—and also our soft palate, epiglottis, throat and tonsils—are studded with lingual papillae (more commonly known as ‘taste buds’). Our tongues have the highest concentration of these structures. At birth, we have around 10,000 taste buds. As we age, usually by 50 or so, we begin to lose them. Each taste bud is actually comprised of clusters of sensory cells that, when stimulated by dissolved molecules in food or drink, transmit information to the brain about the nature of those molecules. These specialized receptors allow us to enjoy (or not) hundreds of thousands of sensation combinations we know simply as ‘tastes.’
The way we actually experience these tastes, however, is a bit more complicated than we initially thought. The “taste map” or “tongue map” most of us learned in elementary school—the division of the tongue into zones coded to detect primarily sweet, salty, bitter or sour tastes—has been proven to be largely inaccurate. For one, a distinct “fifth taste” has been identified—known by the Japanese term “umami,” which translates roughly to “delicious taste”—and which we experience as “savory.” Umami is stimulated by the presence of a particular protein, glutamate (yes, as in monosodium glutamate or MSG; the additive uses a chemically derived version to stimulate our umami receptors). Natural sources of glutamate include steak, cheese and soy sauce.
For another, several studies (most notably, one published in the journal Nature in 2006) have found that receptors for the five basic tastes are housed in individual cells, which can be found scattered all over the tongue and other tasting organs, rather than grouped into exclusive zones. So although taste is not one of our more acute senses (we need approximately 25,000 times more molecules of a particular substance to taste it than to smell it) it’s clear we have long underestimated its complexity—and its role in our daily lives.
Taste initially evolved, in its most basic terms, as a way for animals (us included) to select beneficial foods and reject harmful or potentially harmful ones. We recognize tastes that are rancid, rotten or otherwise, well, distasteful, and choose not to eat them; in part because our bodies are telling us that they carry a higher risk of harm than good. An amazing example of how our sense of taste protects us is evident in the phenomenon of conditioned taste aversion, also known as “sauce béarnaise syndrome”. This occurs when an individual becomes sick after ingesting a particular food or drink, and from that point on is revolted by the taste of the presumably offending substance. The interesting part is that the actual sickness need not have been a result of that particular food or drink at all. For instance, say you ate an oatmeal cookie and then tossed your cookies a few hours later. Even if what you actually had was the flu, you might never want to see (or taste) another oatmeal cookie ever again.
This is a more extreme example of how our sense of taste is designed to keep our bodies functioning optimally. On a much more basic level, our sense of taste helps us to choose—every day and every meal—what to give our bodies so that our bodies may, in turn, give us what we need to live a balanced, healthy life. That is, if we listen and let it.
For the most part, we choose to eat what we eat because it tastes good to us. That much seems obvious. But why certain foods taste better to us—and to different individuals—is much less apparent. Research suggests that our “tastes” are, to some degree, hereditary. A 2005 study found that children with parents who carry a gene for bitter sensitivity, for instance, are more likely to also carry the gene, to also favor foods that are sweeter, and to pick up on even subtle bitter flavors and find them less desirable. It is also abundantly clear that our individual cultures have a major influence on the flavors we seek out and those we pass over on the buffet table. Especially in holistic science and healing circles, the prevailing belief is that our sense of taste is best understood and expressed as a balance of nature and nurture, and that we honor our sense of taste most fully when we view it as an innately designed tool to guide us toward a life that is as rich in health as it is in flavor.
Ayurveda, the ancient and widespread healing tradition of India, has long embraced taste as the basis for choosing foods that will most benefit one’s individual body. The principles of Ayurveda hold that a balance of vata (air and space), pittha (fire and water) and kapha (earth and water) is essential to optimal function, and that each person has a unique combination of these “doshas” or humors that must be balanced, in part through their diets. The way that this diet is selected is based almost entirely on taste. Individuals who have a naturally more pittha dosha, for example, will prefer and should seek out sweet and bitter foods, and eat spicy and sour foods sparingly.
Similarly, the Chinese Taoist philosophy of Yin and Yang gives three sources that together produce the “life force” of Qi: heredity, air and food. In part through observation of the balance of opposites in nature (day/night, winter/summer, male/female), the Taoist diet understands the different tastes as relating to the Five Elements and to five key body parts and their functions (spicy for metal and the lungs, sour for wood and the liver, bitter for fire and the heart, sweet for earth and the spleen, and salty for water and the kidneys). In both practices, it is our individualized sense of taste—born of a combination of our unique biology and our unique environments and cultures—that guides us to choose the foods that will bring us balance.
Whether or not a more Ayurvedic or Taoist approach is to your taste, a vitalistic view of our savoring sense demands that we respect our ability to discern, learn, love and loathe the flavors of our lives as more than a trick of the tongue. As with any sense, the more we are actively aware of taste, the more we can begin to hone, appreciate and enjoy this innately powerful ability to its full capacity. The practice of “mindful eating” is an excellent way to get back in touch with your sense of taste.
The idea is this: when you take a bite or a sip, be completely present in, focused on and thoughtful of the act of eating and tasting. Think of it as a meditation for mind, mouth and spirit. You can start with something simple (a slice of orange) or meaningful (a slice of that famous, Mom-made apple pie). Find a quiet space where you can focus your attention. Begin by looking at and thinking about the food you are about to enjoy: what does it look and smell like? Remind you of? Where did it come from? What has its journey been to you and your plate? Take each bite slowly and savor it. Pay attention to the sensations—the tastes (Sweet? Salty? Bitter? Umami?), textures and temperatures (Juicy? Slick? Gooey? Cool?)—and the thoughts, memories and emotions they spark. When you finish, take a few minutes to take stock of your mind and body, (How do you feel? Are you smiling? Does your stomach feel fuller and your skin warmer?), and to reflect on the good the food itself and the experience of eating it is doing for you. End your mindful eating exercise with a moment of gratitude.
After all, a world without taste is not worth savoring.