The Importance of Tastebuds

27 Jul 2013 06.21 am by K. Daniel

Taste is one of the five major senses, and an important part of our daily life. Imagine living without the ability to taste what you are eating or drinking. Everything that you eat is tasteless. It considerably reduces one of the simple pleasures of life, eating.  Without the ability to taste, you have no idea if something that comes through your lips is salty, sweet, or sour. There is no sensation, and everything comes in a monotone, bland flavour.

In fact, more than 200,000 individuals visit a doctor because of an issue relating to taste annually. These are often temporary losses which can be attributed to illnesses or other factors such as operations, medication side effects, zinc deficiency, and potentially Alzheimer's to name a few. Others may be surprised to find out that what they are experiencing is a loss of smell rather than taste.

But before we continue, first we will have to define what it is exactly that we call our sense of taste?   

From the Tongue or the Nose?

Taste, also known as our gustatory perception, is a chemical reaction experienced when a substance comes into contact with taste bud receptors (located in the tongue). This differs from texture, where there is no chemical chain of reaction, but simply physical stimuli.

On the other hand, flavour is different from our sense of taste. Flavour is a combination of both our sense of taste and sense of smell, which explains why there are 5 basic tastes but a wide variety of flavours. As an example, a ripe peach is not simply sweet, but can be described as being aromatic, floral, and fruity.

The Historical Role of Taste

Our sense of taste does not simply affect how we enjoy the foods we eat. It also affects our survival as a species.

Early humans were described to be hunter-gatherers, meaning that they foraged for food rather than employing agricultural practices. Because of this, food assessment became an extremely important aspect of everyday life.

Taste was one of the focal points of this practice. Sweet tasting foods were preferred as they provided sugars and valuable calories, useful for gathering more food and running from predators, while bitter foods tend to be avoided or at the very least cooked first. This was due to a lot of poisonous substances found in plants are in fact bitter.

This evolutionary association still exists today, and can be seen especially in children, who have stronger taste perceptions and thus have a stronger reaction towards the foods they eat according to article papers in the journal Paediatrics. It was important especially in that time that these youngsters can identify foods that are safe to eat and ensure the continuation of future generations.

Taste Today

Taste continues to be an important aspect of everyday life today. Through our sense of taste it is possible to identify what foods are safe to eat, and to avoid potentially dangerous or unsafe foods. It is through our sense of taste (and smell) that we are able to reject spoiled goods, detect what is edible, evade poisonous ingredients and in some cases avoid foods that we cannot consume (e.g. food allergies).

It is also through our sense of taste that we are able to assess the quality of the foods we eat on a daily basis. How ripe is a fruit? Is a vegetable ready for harvest? Has a produce been on the shelf for too long? What type of fruit is this? What type of vegetable is this? What type of dish can I use this produce for? Is this safe to eat?

As Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin has once famously quoted you are what you eat; perhaps your tastebuds define who you are as well.



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