Five tastes

Why we love some foods and hate others

Black coffee. Hot peppers. Truffles. Oysters. The world is full of polarizing flavours and foods, beloved by many, despised by just as many. Why is that? Scientists have untangled some — but not nearly all — of the mysteries behind our love and hatred of certain foods.

While we might say, “That tastes like strawberry,” scientists who study these things would disagree. Our tongues actually perceive only five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and “umami,” the Japanese word for savoury. To go from merely sweet to “Mmm, strawberry!” the nose has to get involved. The taste and olfactory senses, along with any chemical irritation a food creates in the throat (think mint, hot pepper or olive oil), all send the brain the information it needs to distinguish flavours.

“We as primates are born liking sweet and disliking bitter,” said Marcia Pelchat, who studies food preferences at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. The theory is that we’re hard-wired to like and dislike certain basic tastes so that the mouth can act as the body’s gatekeeper.

Sweet means energy; sour means not ripe yet. Savoury means food may contain protein. Bitter means caution, as many poisons are bitter. Salty means sodium, a necessary ingredient for several functions in our bodies. (By the way, those tongue maps that show taste buds clumped into zones that detect sweet, bitter, etc.? Very misleading. Taste receptors of all types blanket our tongues — except for the center line — and some reside elsewhere in our mouths and throats.)

‘Coffee is too bitter’: The genetic component

Researchers have found only one major human gene that detects sweet tastes, but we all have it. By contrast, 25 or more bitter receptor genes may exist, but combinations vary by person.

Some genetic connections are so strong that scientists can predict fairly accurately how people will react to certain bitter tastes by looking at their DNA. In addition, nearly everyone has at least one “specific anosmia,” meaning you can’t detect a particular odour despite having an otherwise normal sense of smell. A great example is androstenone, the chemical that gives truffles their scent. To many people, it’s offensive, like body odour. Others find it earthy and pleasant, like sandalwood. A quarter of people can’t smell it at all…..

Washington Post: Read more

“Five tastes, or go mi, describes what the Japanese call anbai, the harmonious balance of flavours – salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy – that ensures that our palates are pleasantly stimulated, but not overwhelmed.” — Elizabeth Andoh, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen