The Science Behind the Human Tongue
The geography of the human tongue is divided into taste “zones.” Depending on where a taste bud resides on the tongue, it will sense specific tastes. The far north (the base or back of the tongue) is the bitter zone; the far south (the tip of the tongue) is the sweet zone; the east and west coasts (the center of the tongue’s edges) are sour-ville; and salty is pretty much all over the place.
Scientific research suggests that genes affect taste buds. This means that what you like (and don’t like) to eat may be genetically predetermined. One thing is clear: the more taste buds a person has, the more sensitive they are to taste.
People are divided into three taste bud groups:
- Nontasters — possess the least number of taste buds on the tongue’s surface and are the least sensitive to strong-tasting foods. Bitter or spicy foods and alcohol are not tasted to any degree by this group. And when it comes to sweets, a nontaster might taste only half the sweetness of a dessert that a supertaster considers very sweet.
- Medium tasters — fall in-between the nontasters and the supertasters. Approximately half of the American population are medium or “average” tasters.
- Supertasters — particularly sensitive to how foods taste, especially bitter and sweet foods. Supertasters are also sensitive to fats and how they feel in the mouth, as well as the “heat” of spicy foods. Studies have shown that the majority supertasters are women.
A Definition of Flavor
Flavor is technically a taste-olfactory sensation. In simpler words, when we eat food, we are actually simultaneously tasting and smelling the food. That is why when you have a stuffy nose, taste is virtually eliminated. Can you remember smells or tastes? It isn’t clear whether the ability to remember smells or develop “sensory templates” is cultural or is a learned as a result of time spent in the kitchen around the odors of food.
Want to Test Your “Tasteability?”
According to Dr. Linda Bartoshuk of the Yale University School of Medicine, the following simple test can be used to determine what type of taster a person is: try tasting potassium chloride (a salt substitute) and saccharin.
- A supertaster would taste bitterness in both.
- A nontaster would not taste bitterness in either.
* Scientific background taken from, “Chocolate Lover or Broccoli Hater? The Answer’s on the Tip of your Tongue,” Sandra Blakelee. The New York Times, February 18, 1997; “Tongue test may reveal who has the tingliest buds,” Anne Schamberg. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 4, 1997.
A Weakness for Sweets
People’s love of sugar has been universal since the beginning of time. Taste receptors, which are developed before birth, have been shown to be receptive to sugar and sweetness even in the womb.
Sweetness is also an important component for sustaining life. Glucose, the body’s most important sugar molecule, is the only energy source that can be utilized by the brain.