Laurie Grace

This myth appears in a bunch of textbooks, so it’s not surprising that it’s persisted. The myth is that we mostly taste sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, and sourness at different areas of the tongue. While it’s true that we do have different taste sensations on different areas of the tongue, the exact distribution of sensitivity depends on the particular person doing the tasting. Try this out with a few friends — make your own taste maps and see if they coincide or not. The original myth stems back to the early 1900’s when a German reseacher named Hanig published data on taste sensitivity of different areas of the tongue. The differences in sensitivity he reported were real — but they were so slight as to be of no practical significance. Nobody bothered to check or refute it until many years later, when the idea was already firmly rooted in our popular consciousness, and textbooks.

Some other interesting tidbits about taste:

– These four basic “tastes” have been expanded to five. The fifth is called “umami” which loosely translates from Japanese to “deliciousness.” It’s the flavor of amino acides (such as meat broth, aged cheese, or glutamate, as in monosodium glutamate, or MSG; ) which explains why things with MSG taste so good. There’s also some debate about a sixth receptor for fat.

– Your nose plays a huge role in what you taste. If you plug your nose it can be difficult to tell the difference between a potato and an apple. That’s why things taste bland when you have a cold and your nose is stuffed up.

– Taste buds are clusters of taste receptors. The taste buds themselves are too small to see, but they live on the end of little protrusions of tissue called papillae. You can see your papillae easily by dropping a few drops of food coloring on your tongue (blue works best). The pale dots are the papillae. Taste receptors are activated when chemicals in food bind to them, the taste receptor then fires and sends a message to your brain. Within a few seconds the taste receptor adapts to the flavor and fires much less strongly.

– Your taste sensations depend on the temperature of your tongue! That’s why Ben & Jerry’s serves its ice cream slightly warm in its tasting room, to enhance its sweetness.

For more information, see:

Bartoshuk, L. M. 1993. The biological basis of food perception and acceptance. Food Qual. Pref. 4:21-32