The taste of food

Did you know that the olfactory cells in the nostrils react more strongly to food than the taste buds?

Never wondered why it feels so good to lick ice cream instead of chewing them all at once? In fact, licking ice creams is the best way to enjoy them conveniently, as the papillae that transmit the sweet taste to the brain are located on the tip of the tongue.

The taste buds are the structures that capture the flavors of what we eat, being mostly installed on the tongue, although there are taste buds in other regions of the mouth and throat.

Taste develops in these cells because they have nerves at their ends, which react to food by sending messages to the brain.

As for the taste buds located on the tongue, they are of four types: the filiform ones, which have a thin and elongated shape; fungiforms, which are mushroom-shaped, are located on the front of the tongue; the leaf-shaped foliaceous ones are found in the posterior part, and a fourth group, the goblet or circumvaluated papillae, are more voluminous and ring-shaped, converge in a V at the bottom of the tongue.

There are also other factors that influence the pleasant sensation of tasting a food, namely smell, nutritional requirements and experience. Most of the things we call “taste” are actually smell.

The olfactory cells in the nostrils react more strongly to food than the taste buds. These cells are stimulated only by airborne molecules, the so-called “smell”, which in turn causes salivation, a necessary condition for tasting food.

Nutritional requirements are also important, for example if we are short of insulin we tend to automatically choose the sweetest food available to create the proper organic balance.

Finally, we react to memories, that is, if a person becomes ill with food poisoning right after eating a certain food, they will often not want to eat it again, even if the illness has nothing to do with that food.

Regarding flavors, at the beginning of this text we mentioned the sweet taste, however, there are thousands of sensations, as the reader knows. But, the five flavors considered basic are sweet, salty, acidic, bitter and umami (a word from the Japanese and means tasty).

These flavors come from the chemical compounds of the food and the taste buds are sensitive to these flavors, with the sweet and salty feeling essentially on the tip of the tongue, the acid on the sides and the bitter taste on the back.

Umami is identified by specific receptors (the tmGluR4), which are found throughout the tongue. The flavor is triggered by the presence of the amino acid monosodium glutamate, often industrialized to enhance the flavor of food. Enjoy your food!
Note: Text written by Ivone Fachada under the Science@Bragança project and now available for the “Culture, Science and Technology” project of the Portuguese Press Association


Author: Ivone Fachada is the executive director of the Centro Ciência Viva de Bragança.
Postgraduate in History of Science and Science Education at the University of Aveiro and University of Coimbra (attendance of an interdisciplinary doctorate).
Master in Nature Management and Conservation from the University of Azores.
Degree in Forestry Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Bragança.
member of ScicomPT – National Science Communicators Network, being part of the Board of this Association between October 2017 and May 2020.
Teacher trainer, accredited by the Scientific and Pedagogical Council for Continuing Education in the domains: “A64- Environmental Sciences” and “D08 – Environmental Education”.
Author or co-author of more than thirty articles in journals, conferences and book chapters.