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Four Things to Know About The Five Tastes
The five recognized tastes are sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and umami (savory). But, that’s not all there is to the story. Read on to learn more about taste, and how ideas about it are still evolving.
1. Your tongue isn’t divided into sections by taste. This was long thought to be the case, but in truth different taste receptors intermingle all over the tongue. It’s not hard to see why scientists previously thought this, though. Some areas are more sensitive to certain tastes than others: the sides of the tongue are the most attuned areas to all tastes, while the back of the tongue is most sensitive to bitter tastes.
2. Umami was accepted as the fifth taste in 2002, more than 100 years after it was identified by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda. Meaning roughly "delicious" in Japanese, umami became fully accepted as one of the foundational tastes after it was proven that our tongues have taste receptors for L-glutamate, an amino acid responsible for the umami effect. Umami is often described as savory or meaty, and is most present in high-flavor foods such as ripe tomatoes, cheese, and anchovies. It’s also why MSG—monosodium glutamate—is so potent in ramping up flavor.
3. There might be more than five tastes. Scientists are still looking into whether the mouth has specific taste receptors for other substances, such as fat, calcium, and metals. Spiciness, however, definitely isn’t a taste: it’s processed in the brain not by taste buds, but by pain receptors.
4. Your sense of taste keeps you safe. Taste buds in the mouth come to the rescue by sending the brain a cue when a food is poisonous or rotten, preventing you from swallowing it or storing it in your cheek pouches.