Sex and eating use all five of our senses – smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste. The flavor of food is one of the most complex and powerful of all human sensations. If something does not look good, smell good, or have the right sound, we may reject it. You’re unlikely to eat potato chips that don’t crunch, and we often describe the feel of cheesecake or hot fudge in our mouth as sensual.
What actually happens when food hits your tongue?
As you chew, food molecules dissolve in your saliva and move into your smell receptors. Smell is unique because you can perceive odors outside the body as well as through your mouth. Both contribute to flavor. If you lose your ability to smell, even temporarily from a cold, you have less interest in food. As we age our sense of smell becomes less acute, making many foods taste bland and uninteresting.
The old saying that we eat with our eyes is quite true. Before food ever gets to your mouth, your eyes have examined it and sent messages to your brain to either accept or reject what’s on the plate. Every one of us has a food that we just can’t look at, much less eat.
Hearing — apples that crunch, crackers that snap — triggers memories of food experiences and enhances the anticipation of the flavor to come.
Touch — chocolate melting on your tongue or cool ice cream on a hot day — influences our rate of chewing and the delivery of molecules to the taste buds and nose.
We taste sour, sweet, bitter, salty, umami and fat. The first four tastes are undisputed. The fifth taste, umami, was discovered about 100 years ago and gives food a meaty flavor. Just recently scientists discovered humans have taste receptors for fat. Experts believe each taste sensation has a connection to human survival.
The taste of sweet insures our intake of carbohydrates, a primary source of energy (calories). Umami receptors are triggered by amino acids, found in food proteins which are used to build and repair our body proteins. The word umami comes from a Japanese adjective meaning delicious. No one would argue this is the flavor of a juicy steak.
Sour, bitter and salty tastes have evolutionary roots. Desiring salt, which is essential to life and not easily found in nature, was important for early man’s survival. The sour and bitter taste in plants may have stopped early man from eating poisonous plants and berries.
About 1 in 4 of us is considered a supertaster, a person who possesses very sensitive bitter receptors. For supertasters hating vegetables has biological roots. If your ability to taste bitter is enhanced vegetables can taste up to 60% more bitter to you than the average person. This helps explain why two people can eat the exact same dish and one will love it and the other hate it.
The newly discovered flavor receptor for fat sheds light on our love for fatty foods. It’s hard to turn down French fries, whipped cream, or salad dressing. In the past we thought fatty foods held textural appeal but recent research has shown that there are chemical receptors for fat in our taste buds. These receptors signal both the brain and the digestive tract when fat is eaten. Like with bitter tastes, some people are fat supertasters. Those who taste fat more vividly desire fatty foods more often. Being a fat supertaster could be one reason for weight gain.
So the next time you taste a food you love or take a mouthful of something you think is awful, think about the extraordinary work your senses are doing to create those flavor experiences.