Our senses tell us a lot about the world around us and keeps us safe. For the majority of our senses, what they tell us is pretty obvious. Sight allows you to see danger and interact with the world. Hearing allows us to hear danger and communicate. Touch helps us to interact and is where we feel pain, warning us of danger. You get the idea — generally, our senses alert us to danger, wherever that danger is.
Taste is a little different, though. If you’re tasting danger, it’s usually a little too close to protect yourself from. Instead, taste is a little different in what it tells us. So, why do we taste, and why do some things taste good, while others don’t?
What Is Taste?
So, what exactly is your sense of taste? The way our brain senses taste is by taking sensations derived from chemical reactions in the mouth and tongue (the taste buds) and combining them with smells to create flavor. Surprisingly, our noses play a fairly dominant role in the flavors we taste. That’s why people suggest you hold your nose when taking some foul-tasting medicine, for example. It weakens the taste a bit. So, what we often refer to as taste is actually called flavor, though we’ll use them interchangeably since flavor and taste are so closely related for the purposes we’re using them today. It does help to understand that both smell and taste create flavor, though we often think of this as simply an aspect of taste.
There are generally considered to be five basic flavors — salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami.
When it comes down to flavors, there are generally considered to be five basic flavors — salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. Together, these make up most of the flavors you taste every day, though there’s an argument that there’s more than those five. You’ll likely be familiar with four of the five, though umami may be throwing you for a loop. Discovered in the early 1900s, umami is a Japanese nominalization of umai (delicious) and mi (taste). Savory, meaty flavors fall into this category. Using these five basic tastes, you create combinations in every meal and every dish you make or eat.
Why Do Some Foods Taste Good?
While less obvious than our other senses, taste did help to protect early humans from danger. These humans learned early on that certain foods that were healthy or safe to eat tasted a certain way, while poisonous or unsafe foods tasted bitter or rotten.
The five basic flavors told early humans a lot about the food they were eating, even down to whether they were getting the nutrients they need. Sour and bitter foods were often avoided, since these could mean toxic or harmful foods, especially in large quantities. On the other hand, sweet, salty, and umami tastes told them that there were desirable nutrients. Sweet foods tended to be calorie-dense and right in carbohydrates. Salty foods are rich in, you guessed it, salt, which is an important electrolyte and helps our bodies function properly. Finally, umami foods tend to have a lot of amino acids and proteins. As we became more sophisticated in our cooking, we began using all these flavors, even those that used to be signs of danger.
The flavor of foods told early humans a lot about what they were eating, while the texture of a food can tell us a lot about how fresh it is.
There’s another important factor in whether or not something is appetizing beyond flavor and taste, and that’s texture or mouthfeel. While these aren’t taste, we’ll briefly discuss how this can influence taste and what this tells you. The texture of a food can tell us a lot about how fresh it is, especially in fruits and veggies. Imagine biting into a raw carrot and it mushes in your teeth. Or chomping into a ham sandwich and finding a slimy covering on the ham. A bad texture can alert us to unsafe food as much as taste. Much like how we’ve evolved to use previously avoided flavors, our use of texture has also become more complex.
Differences in Personal Taste
Flavor isn’t as simple as sweet and salty taste good, sour and bitter are bad. If that were the case, everyone would like all the same foods, which isn’t the case. As humans became more developed and our culinary skills developed, we began exploring different foods and different flavors. Now, there are people that love sour lemons or bitter coffee. In fact, the once-avoided tastes have become central elements of many dishes. This opened up a whole world of foods for humans and created personalized culinary preferences.
The culture you grow up and live in can greatly influence your preferred foods and flavors.
When we were eating to survive, humans would eat high calorie, safe foods. Once we began cooking, humans were able to experiment with the ingredients they had around them. This introduced one of the first determining factors in differing preferences — culture. The culture you grow up and live in can greatly influence your preferred foods and flavors. Experience and familiarity also play a part in developing preferences. Children who experience hot peppers at a young age are often more likely to enjoy them later in life. By the same token, if you have a bad experience with a food, like getting food poisoning, you’re less likely to order that dish again.
These are aspects you can influence about yourself if you want to stop being a picky eater, for example. Others, however, you can’t really change (to an extent). Your genes play a part in your preferences and how some foods taste to you. These foods, like cilantro or Brussels sprouts, may be intolerable to people with certain genes, while they are the favorite foods of other people. Another factor in your genes could come down to evolution, with the region your ancestors came from changing how you taste some foods. Your mother’s diet during pregnancy and after you were born can also play a part because you were introduced to certain flavors through amniotic fluid and breast milk. Finally, you could be a supertaster, which is someone who has more taste buds than the average person. This gives many foods a more intense taste, which makes some foods extra delicious and others completely inedible. Suffice to say, developing your personal taste preferences takes a lifetime, with factors you can influence and some you’re born with.
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As one of our five senses (though that number is in doubt), taste is a key element of how we interact and experience our world. As humans developed from essentially smart animals to what we are today, taste took on an even greater significance, with some people devoting their entire lives to food and flavor. Now that you understand what taste is, we can begin to understand why we like certain flavors and not others, which we can use to break bad food habits or improve our cooking!