Getting to Know Your Taste Buds

Meet your tongue: the organ of taste and home to thousands of tiny taste buds that help you enjoy the foods you love and avoid those you don't.

Bitter, sour, salty, sweet. While these could just as easily describe personality traits, they are actually your four basic tastes. Add umami, a word that describes a headier, more complex taste, such as that of a grilled steak, aged cheese or deeply flavored exotic mushroom, and the list is complete.

When you look at your tongue, you see that it is covered in little bumps. These bumps are called papillae, and they contain thousands of taste buds. Each of your taste buds is a cluster of taste receptor cells. The tip of the cluster forms a taste pore, or tiny opening, on the surface of your tongue. Tiny hair-like structures within each pore pick up flavors from food and send messages to your brain to let you know that what you are eating tastes salty, sweet, bitter, sour or umami.

A map of your tongue would reveal regions where these different types of tastes are recognized. Sweet is across the tip of your tongue, salt along the sides of the front of your tongue, bitter across the back and sour on the sides of your tongue near the back. These areas are thought to be most sensitive to these particular tastes, because each contains the most taste receptors for those individual tastes, but in actuality, your entire tongue can pick up all the basic tastes. Although we perceive hot and spicy as a form of taste, these are not true tastes, but actually responses to the pain caused by specific chemicals in food that cause a spicy burn.

Your nose also contains receptors that help you smell the food at the same time your taste buds are tasting it. Together, your nose and tongue send flavor signals to your brain so you can decide whether or not you enjoy the flavor of your food. If you have a problem with your nose, such as allergies or a sinus infection that interferes with your sense of smell, you won't be able to taste your food very well because your tongue can't work alone. So, for instance, if you order lemon chicken at a restaurant when you have a cold, you might recognize that your food has a sour flavor, but you probably won't get the true taste of lemon because you won't be able to smell it.




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Uzwiak,  Dr. "Chemical Senses: Gustation"; Rutgers University. Web. 3 Mar 2011