“It’s a myth that the tongue has specific zones for each flavour. The five tastes can be sensed on all parts of the tongue, although the sides are more sensitive than the middle,” writes columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS in his latest burst of whimsy.
A CANBERRA wine reviewer recently analysed a wine as follows: “The nose shows forest-floor aromas, the front palate spicy cherry flavour and the middle palate blackberry, briar, peppermint and cedary oak. The finish has minty tannins.”
Personally, I like my wine to be smooth and tasting of grapes and not much else.
The review reminded me of my one and only visit to a Starbucks in the US with its menu board of flavoured coffees when all I wanted was a flat white tasting like coffee. But as American journalist HL Mencken said: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”
Humans have five basic senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. We have others, but these are the main ones. Sight, smell and taste work together to make food and drink enjoyable – or warn us that it’s gone bad.
Our sense of taste aided in human evolution. A bitter or sour taste indicated that a potential food source might be poisonous or rotten. A salty or sweet taste often meant the food was rich in nutrients.
Most of us can easily detect four different tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. There’s also a less assertive fifth taste, “umami” or savouriness. Umami boosters include ketchup, miso, truffle oil, ranch dressing and soy sauce, to name a few.
Most human tastebuds are on the tongue, but they also line the back of the throat, the epiglottis, the nasal cavity and the oesophagus. The adult human tongue contains between 2000 and 8000 tastebuds, each of which is made up of 50 to 150 taste receptor cells.
It’s a myth that the tongue has specific zones for each flavour (as indicated by taste maps). The five tastes can be sensed on all parts of the tongue, although the sides are more sensitive than the middle, but the full experience of a flavour is produced by combined information from different parts of the tongue.
The appearance and smell of food or drink greatly affects how the brain anticipates how it will taste. Smells are sent to the mouth in a process called olfactory referral. That’s why someone with a cold may have trouble tasting food properly. Texture also contributes to taste – as one food expert commented: “If it looks like styrofoam, smells like styrofoam, and has the texture of styrofoam, it’s probably a rice cracker.”
Other satisfaction factors include temperature, detected by thermoreceptors and “coolness” (such as mint or menthol) and “hotness” (spicy curries).
By the way, good quality beer shouldn’t be served colder than seven degrees Celsius – and preferably warmer to maximise the flavour. Icy cold beer might be refreshing, but it’s a way of disguising poor quality.
I respect people with refined palates such as sommeliers and judges on “MasterChef”, but anyone can train themselves to better appreciate food and drink by slowly savouring it, noting which of the five tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – are present. What is the relative balance of each of the tastes? What is the physical sensation in your mouth? How long does the flavour linger?
Among humans, taste perception begins to decline from around 50 years of age because of loss of tongue papillae and a general decrease in saliva production. Loss of taste can also be a sign of COVID-19. Researchers are still trying to understand how COVID-19 affects taste and why taste degradation can continue after recovery.
As one covid-recovered Canberran observed: “Three months since I had covid and I’ve still got very poor taste – my favourite show is ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’.”
Not all mammals share the same taste capabilities. Cats can’t taste sweetness. Dogs have amazing smell capabilities, but their sense of taste is less discriminating than humans’ as they only have around 1700 tastebuds.
Finally, on the subject of poor taste – a man goes to a restaurant and has the most delicious turkey he’s ever tasted. He asks the chef: “How do you prepare the turkeys?” The chef replies: “Oh, nothing complex – we just tell them they’re going to die.”
Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist
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