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Posts Tagged ‘taste buds’

He just tasted something bitter.

He just tasted something bitter.

Second part to a sensory series.  Read Part 1: How We Smell.

 

 

Taste is often heralded as being the superior sense to smell, but as I explained in my explanation of How We Smell, this is not entirely true.  Taste works in concert with smell as well as touch to round out what we generally refer to as flavor.  We typically describe taste with names that we all know: Salty, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, and more recently, Umami.  Taste though can be unconsciously blended in with our other two flavor senses.  Improperly, in the case where we think we smell something sweet; when in fact we can’t smell sweet at all, but our mind is associating various aromas with sweet tasting foods.  As well as properly, in the case where we both feel the acid in our mouth and taste something sour which a number of acids are in fact sour tasting.  In wine and food pairing, it is taste and touch that we speak of when we talk about balance.

Exactly how we taste isn’t as much of a mystery as smell has been in the past, but science is beginning to discover now that there may be more to the story.  The 5 tastes accepted by most respectable scientists are detected by the taste buds we harbor in our mouths.  Not just the tongue mind you, but over a variety of the surfaces in our mouths, throats, and even into the nasal cavity.  These taste buds are stashed within the visible bumps in various kinds of papillae which are purely there to increase the surface area of the tongue and perhaps make the terrain a bit more interesting to the bacteria which reside on it.  Each taste bud is a collection of cells, sprouting up like flowers where each cell either binds to proteins to determine sweet, bitter, and umami or channels are created which are entered by ions to determine salty and sour.

Previously it was thought that different areas of our tongue were better at perceiving each of the different tastes. This was disproven (Largely credited to man named Charles Zuker) when it was discovered that each cell within our taste buds has a different taste palette; meaning that they primarily detect a particular taste and then to a gradually ranking lesser extent, the other tastes as well.  This of course means that if you lose the tip of your tongue in a sword fight (You old swashbuckler, you) fear not; you will still be able to taste sweetness.  Also, because each taste cell detects every taste, but at varying levels, when the signals hit our brains, they are being delivered in stereo just like smell is.

TasteBuddiagram

However, the number of those taste buds can vary a bit between individuals.  The most convincing and widely used evidence of this is found in the research of Linda Bartoshuk, PhD who showed not only that individuals vary, but exactly how much we vary.  She is the source of the phrase “Super Taster” which fit so nicely into sensationalist headlines however many years ago, even if it is somewhat misleading.  The term ‘super’ is oft-aligned with things we associated as being good, but in the sense of taste, we will see that this may not be the case.

To see what category of taster you are, you can perform a simple experiment.  Grab some blue food coloring, a piece of paper with a hole punched in it (7mm or 0.5 inches in diameter), and perhaps a magnifying glass by which you will look at your tongue in the mirror with.  After applying a drop of food coloring and painting your tongue blue, place the hole of the paper on the top of your tongue near the tip.  Poking out from the blue, you will see your white taste buds.  Using the magnifying glass, give these a count.  If you are technologically inclined, snap a close up picture with your phone for easier counting.

You will find yourself in 1 of 3 categories, but before you band together with others in your group and go around taunting the other two groups, let’s see what this difference means.

  • Non-Taster or Tolerant Taster: <15 papillae
  • “Normal” Taster: 15-35 papillae
  • Super Taster: >35 papillae
Pictured: Normal to Tolerant Taster...plus a blue tongue

Pictured: Normal to Tolerant Taster…plus a blue tongue

Now that you’ve discovered what kind of taster you are, what does that mean?  Well, it is a measure of the intensity at which you taste.  The more taste buds you have, the more sensory input you are receiving.  What it does not mean is that you are a better or worse taster depending on which category you fall in.  Super Tasters tend to find bitter tastes to be overwhelming and therefore you’ll notice they tend to need salt on everything.  In terms of wine, a lot of Super Tasters prefer the sweeter whites of the reds, because the tannin in red wines is too jarring for them.  On the other end, while a Tolerant Taster may be able to handle their whiskey neat and their wines big and tannic, they might not pick up a subtle sweetness of a wine that a Super Taster enjoys.

It should also be noted that which category you fall in to can change over your lifespan.  With rare exceptions, people tend to decrease in their level of taste sensitivity over time.  On the rebellious side of the wine world, Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine, is trying to introduce these different categories of tasters through his program myVinotype.  He breaks the spectrum down into more categories, which are more geared to how we market wine to people, but the important thing here is to note that it is in fact a spectrum.  This means if you done the above test and categorized yourself as a borderline Tolerant Taster, you might not like your whiskey neat.

Beyond the five tastes that have been agreed upon, more types of tastes are being researched to see if we also have cells that can detect them as well.  For a full description on these potential new contenders to be added to our taste list, see this article.  Here is a preview:

  • Calcium: Yes, that’s right, the stuff that makes bones stronger is also thought to create a taste similar to bitter that can be found particularly in things like spinach.
  • Kokumi:  A term meaning something close to mouthful-ness by the same Japanese company that brought us Umami.  This could provide an additional way to describe the body of a wine.
  • Piquance: Used to describe spicy foods.  This most likely will remain a physiological sensation though and not a taste since what we know of it now is that it trips our temperature sensors and is not tickling any taste buds.
  • Coolness: The opposite of piquance like what you get from mint.  Perhaps relegated to the same fate as piquance due to the trigeminal factors in play.
  • Metallicity:  Again, perhaps physiological factors are more in play here than actual taste.  The theory goes that there might be actual electrical conductivity happening (Shocking, I know) when certain metals are in our mouths.  If you’re wondering why you would ever put metal in your mouth look up silver and gold leaf on pastries…or watch a small child who happens upon some change.
  • Fat: Possibly the most likely candidate for a new spot on the taste list.  Fat taste cells have already been found in mice, but the discovery in humans is still outstanding.
  • Carbon Dioxide: Previously this tingling had been dismissed as a trigeminal sensation, but new research points to some receptors on some of sour taste cells that may bind with CO2.  Again, most of this is happening in mice, but that’s always the step before humans.

As noted in a few of these taste contenders, the experience we are gathering from them are more trigeminal reactions and not necessarily molecules binding to or entering taste cells.  Those will be discussed when I dive into the touch of flavor.  I’ll also show the effects of one taste on another mixing those with the touch sensation.  However, to complicate things a little more now, tastes can be perceived differently due to either mental perception (i.e. Framing and Priming as discussed in How We Smell), the balance of tastes, or due to taste modifiers.

Taste modifiers have been known of for a number of years such as how after tasting an artichoke your glass of water may seem a little sweeter, or how after eating some Miracle Berries our ability to taste sweetness is temporarily diminished.  Have you ever had orange juice after brushing your teeth? Taste modification.  These effects are a result of actual physical manipulation of your taste buds.  Sounds somewhat horrifying, right?  Be rest assured that there have been no negative or permanent effects shown by ingesting either of these so there is not likely a chance that you will lose your ability to taste sweet things anytime soon.  However, a company by the name of Senomyx, linked to the aforementioned Charles Zuker, has been actively mapping our taste buds and compiling a database of thousands of ways to manipulate them.  Their first product in collaboration with PepsiCo is set to be released this year which is a sweet modifier.  In other words the beverage will taste sweet even though there is a lack of sugar or other sweetener in it.

While our sense of smell if in charge of identifying thousands of different aromas, our sense of taste is actually quite limited in scope.  However, it is still a very important part in determining what we describe as the flavor of a food or beverage.  In wine, we even limit this more and we really only focus on sweet, bitter, and sour sensations.  On rare occasions we do mention umami or saltiness when describing a wine, but a lot of those times, it’s not in a good manner.  If you ever want to test yourself and see whether you are truly tasting something or mostly smelling something and then interpreting a taste from that try this: Take a sip of wine into your mouth as you hold your breath.  Do not breathe in or out.  Nope, not even just a little.  Roll the wine all over your tongue.  By not breathing you are able to isolate the sense of taste from smell and really ask yourself how much sweetness you are getting.  You’ll also notice the sensation of touch working, but we’ll get to that next time.

OK, you can breathe now.  Let the flavor be complete.

 

Additional sources for reading:

Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters – Gordon Shepherd

The Science of Wine: From vine to glass – Jamie Goode

Why You Like The Wines You Like – Tim Hanni

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Rating: 5/5

Brined cornish game hens, rubbed with clove and paprika and put on the grill. Risotto made from arborio, onions, broth, white wine, golden beets, and spiced with thyme, paprika, and clove. Ligonberries deglazed in white wine, spiced with clove, cinnamon, and thyme; spiked with some honey. Also with green beans sauteed in some olive oil.

Wine: Camino de Navaherreros 2010

IMG_1239Notes: I take delight in exploring the extreme perimeters of what my 4-year-old nephew will even consider eating. Apparently this risotto “Tastes like potatoes,” so I’ll go ahead and consider this to be a win for me on this one given my high number of failures in this game.

Anyway…

Lately I’ve been devouring François Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules which highlights his research in matching the volatile compounds (aromas/tastes) of wines to those found in food. While limited to flavor matching, it’s an interesting approach because wine science is just getting to the point where enough information has been cataloged to start doing this. I’ll probably post on topics around this at a later point, but for this experience, just know that the components of clove are chemically the same as those found in a number of red wines and grilled meats always have an affinity for wines put into some oak.

The results were of course spectacular. The theme of clove in varying potency levels in each of the parts of the meal were all brought out by the wine and vice-versa. The red fruit in the wine also made good friends with the ligonberries. Retronasally-speaking (breathing out through your nose after you swallow) all this flavor matching creates this heightened immersion into the food and wine which if done in overabundance could be overwhelming.

By the way, yes that is a guy riding a bear on the label which I think is now one of my favorite wine labels. “Herreros” translated means blacksmiths I believe or a skilled tradesmen, but I have no idea what the “Nava” part would be. So it’s the Path of the something-something blacksmiths that carry spears and ride on bears. I definitely want to take that journey.

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