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Matters of taste are influenced by culinary aesthetics

Posted in Biology, Psychology, Science on Thursday, 19 April 2012

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This edited article about the sense of taste originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 691 published on 12 April 1975.

Candy Floss seller, picture, image, illustration

The candy floss seller at the fairground

Since the earliest times, people have pandered to their sense of taste. Taste is one of the five senses – the others are sight, touch, smell and hearing.

Yet in spite of the thousands of differently flavoured dishes prepared by cooks and chefs, our organ of taste, the tongue, can detect only four kinds of taste!

These are the four tastes we call salty, sour, sweet and bitter. All other so-called tastes are just flavours made by combining two or more of the real tastes.

Scattered over the top surface of your tongue are more than 15,000 tiny taste buds or cells, which are connected to the brain by nerves. When your tongue comes into contact with anything you eat, the food has a chemical action on the buds and causes them to send “taste messages” to the brain.

There are four kinds of taste buds: one kind for salty flavours, one for sour flavours, one for sweetness and one for bitterness.

Each of these four kinds of taste buds is grouped on certain parts of the tongue. The drawing shows where the four kinds of taste buds are and the particular flavours they detect.

If you place a little table salt, lemon juice, or other strong flavour on the middle of your tongue, you won’t be able to taste it because there aren’t any taste buds there!

Your sense of smell helps to give taste to food. For example: if you have a bad cold, your ability to detect different smells becomes less and it is difficult to detect the taste of many foods.

Seeing also has much to do with our sense of taste – food which is attractively arranged on a plate really does taste better than having the meal and two veg. all mixed together in congealed gravy! This is one of the reasons why food manufacturers often add harmless colouring materials to tinned foods. Some of the natural colour is lost in preparing them.

Things that are very hot or very cold can interfere with our sensation of taste for a short time. If you have ever put something very hot into your mouth you will remember that it did not have any taste at all.

In the same way, if you put a piece of flavoured ice on your tongue, your tongue simply feels frozen. You do not taste the flavour until your tongue gets warm again.

All this is because extremes of hot and cold paralyse for a few seconds the nerves that carry the sense of taste to the brain.

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