T here are up to 10,000 taste buds, spread over your tongue, mouth and throat. Go on, look at you your tongue in the mirror, you can see it’s covered in little bumps?

And in those bumps are taste buds. This means that when you put something in your mouth, these taste buds send a message to your brain to give you information about whether the food is salty, sweet, sour, bitter or umani (a salty savoury taste – like meat).

It is not only your tastebuds that are responsible for the way you taste things, your sense of smell also helps you to taste the flavour of the food you eat. When you are chewing food, chemicals are released that travel up to your nose. Your nose then tells your brain how food tastes and how it smells. Now you know why, when you have a cold, you can’t taste things as much.

The Human Tongue
It was always believed that there were distinct regions on the tongue where the main tastes were recognised. Taste buds on the tip of the tongue detect sweet tastes, and those at the back of the tongue detect bitter tastes. Groups of taste buds at the side of the tongue measure sour and salty tastes. The tastes of any food is a combination of these four basic tastes.

Many do not believe this “taste zones” theory and believe that all tastes can be detected anywhere there are taste receptors—around the tongue, on the soft palate at back roof of the mouth, and even in the epiglottis, the flap that blocks food from the windpipe, especially since the fifth taste, umani was discovered. These taste buds or ‘flavour receptors, transmit the different taste information as a message to the brain. It is the brain which processes the information and tells us what food is actually in our mouths.

Hot Food – An Acquired Taste
Your ability to taste bitter substances protects you from swallowing harmful substances – many poisonous plants taste bitter. It is however possible to ‘acquire a taste’ for a bitter substance like the quinine in tonic water, or even coffee.

An acquired taste popular throughout the world is capsaicin, the substance in chilli peppers that makes them hot. Even though capsaicin triggers pain receptor cells, it’s eaten daily by over one-third of the world’s population.

Don’t Confuse Taste with Flavour
Most people confuse taste with flavour. Taste is a chemical sense picked up by specialized receptor cells that make up taste buds.

Flavour is a fusion of many different senses. To perceive flavour, the brain interprets not only taste stimuli, but also olfactory (smell) stimuli and tactile (touch) and thermal sensations (hot or cold). We know already that with spicy food, the brain will even understand pain as one aspect of flavour.

As we grow older our taste buds become less sensitive. This is one of the reasons why elderly people may no longer enjoy their food so much.

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