How Do Your Taste Buds Actually Work? Find Out With These 5 Delicious Facts About Our Sense Of Taste
Have you ever stopped in the middle of snacking on something that tasted particularly bizarre — or even something that tasted completely ordinary — and wondered what is actually, technically, happening in your mouth when you taste a food? I certainly have (because I am kind of odd that way). But even if you've never paused mid-bite to wonder how the science of tasting food works, you've probably been exposed to some of the many myths out there about how we taste — like that you can see the taste buds on your tongue.
In reality, taste buds aren't actually those tiny, visible nubs on your tongue. Those bumps just house the actual buds; and each one of them contains as many as fifteen buds. We have, on average, ten thousand taste buds that are replaced roughly every two weeks (though some of us have many more, as we'll see). The buds contain microscopic hair-like protrusions called microvilli that detect taste. And let's bust another taste myth while we're at it — there aren't special "regions" of the tongue that only detect one particular type of taste. All taste buds can detect all the different types of flavors, including sweet and sour; it's just that some areas of the tongue show a small bias towards one kind.
What other facts have you missed about how we taste food? Take a bite out of the five taste-related truth bombs below.
1. You Can Taste Fat In Foods
Researchers from Purdue University have recently revealed a new theory about how we taste different foods. The usual line of thinking is that we can detect up to five different tastes in food: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (more about that last one in a minute). But the new research claims to have discovered that we can also taste fat.
Yep, you heard right — the research claims that humans can detect fat in and of itself in the food that we eat. In fact, there's one specific kind of fat that seems to make the biggest impact on our taste buds: the subjects being tested could identify the fat found in vegetable and nut oil as a distinct "taste," separate from others. It wasn't that these fats have an unusual texture, either: the researchers deliberately made all of the test foods feel the same in the mouths of the subjects (who, unpleasantly, had plugged noses so smell wouldn't interfere).
The researchers are proposing to give the taste of fat the glamorous name "oleogustus." So if you're looking for a villain's name to use in your sci-fi epic, that's a pretty good candidate.
2. Some People Really Can Taste Food More Intensely Than Others
If you haven't heard of "supertasters," they're a group of people who have insanely complex and advanced tasting abilities; they can detect incredibly small levels of taste in a food, and normal levels can feel overpowering to them. Supertasting — which occurs in roughly 25 percent of the population — may sound like a gift, but it's also a serious pain in the neck: many common foods, like broccoli, taste horrifically bitter to supertasters, while coffee, alcohol, super-sugary desserts and other delights of life are also overwhelming and unpalatable to them.
Does this sound like a day in your life? If you think you might be a supertaster, you're in luck, because the basic test for being a supertaster is fairly simple. Supertasters have a huge number of fungiform papillae (the lumps that house taste buds) on their tongues, and a simple test with blue food dye can determine your status — dye your tongue, then count the amount of buds within a circle with quarter-inch diameter. If the number is above thirty: congratulations, you're probably a supertaster.
But huge amounts of papillae aren't enough: the final test for supertasters is to prove that you can detect the taste of PROP, or propylthiouracil. Propylthiouracil is a medicine that's used to medicate overactive thyroids, but scientists discovered that supertasters found the taste of the medicine notably bitter, while normal tasters typically didn't notice it.
3. There's A Fifth Taste — And We've Only Known About For 100 Years
If you spend any time around food nerds, you've heard the term "umami" bandied about with the casual I'm-being-impressive flair of the competitive expert. Umami, also known as "the savory sense," describes the taste of those foods which are rich in glutamate, an amino acid — like beef, mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, tuna, Vegemite and other strong, distinct savories.
But the umami taste has actually only been part of our food knowledge for a short time — and has only been known in the Western world for twenty or so years. The first pioneering research on umami was done by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda, who published his discovery in 1909 — but his research was only available in Japanese-language scientific texts. The concept of umami only entered the Western consciousness in the late twentieth century, when his papers were translated and Western scientists started trying to replicate and extend his results.
But even though the concept and name are new to many of us in the West, we've loved umami tastes for a long time. The ancient Romans drenched basically everything in a fermented fish sauce called garum, which to our modern tastes is absolutely disgusting — it's fish that's been allowed to ferment for up to three months — but is seriously rich in glutamate, and probably one of the umami-est tastes around.
4. We Can Be Fooled Into "Tasting" Different Colors
Sommeliers, it seems, are not to be trusted in their highfalutin pronouncements about the tastes of certain wines. At least, that's what some people have drawn from research claiming that experts can occasionally be fooled by changing the color of wine from white to red.
A 2001 study of 54 wine tasters found that, if presented with a red wine, they'd automatically "discount their olfactory information" – that is, what they tasted – in favor of what they could see. If it looked like a red wine, their brains would process the taste as if it were one, no matter what it actually tasted like. Our sense of taste isn't experienced in a vacuum: aside from the widespread knowledge that smell plays a role in how we taste food, our other senses play a big role in taste, as well. And visual experiences are often perceived by the brain as more reliable than the taste buds.
A similar 2003 study revealed something interesting: professional wine tasters were able to create much more accurate flavor profiles of a drink if the wine was presented to them in an opaque glass, even if it had been colored "incorrectly." When the wine was presented in a traditional wine glass, the tasters struggled hard to overcome their visual bias about how a red or white wine should taste. We may have strong visual connections to food taste because that's how we evolved to detect poisons and other possible illness-inducing foods: if it looks dangerous or rotted, we assume that it will probably taste terrible and leave it alone.
5. Airplane Food Tastes Weird Because Of Sound Levels
So this is frankly bizarre: airplane food, it turns out, isn't actually innately awful. A 2015 study by Cornell University found that the experience of being inside an airplane cabin effects our sense of taste — because of the constant, intrusive noise levels.
Noise, it turns out, makes a serious impact on our experience of the five flavors. The Cornell scientists replicated the constant 85-decibel noise of an economy airplane seat, and found that subjects in that environment tasted sweetness and saltiness with far less intensity than they would in a quieter environment. This also explains why people in first and business class have better food experiences: not only are they getting better, fresher food, they're in a quieter part of the plane, so their tastes won't confused by the constant, horrible hum of noise common in economy class.
TIME also highlighted a 2015 German study about the effects of airplane pressure on the taste buds — and the news isn't good there, either. The pressure and dryness of a plane environment dry out the taste buds — and that, plus the noise, means that it may be basically impossible for us cattle-class peons to have a decent meal in the sky, no matter what food we're eating. Is it worth paying for an upgrade, just to make those free pretzels taste better? Only you can be the judge of that.
Images: Claire Joines/Bustle; Giphy (4)