Flavour is a huge part of cooking. It enhances our enjoyment of food. It is also incredibly fascinating to learn how it works. Knowing a little more about flavour and how it works will help you become more confident cooking – whether you choose to follow a recipe or not.
Flavour is a combination of several different parts. Taste, aroma, texture and mouthfeel. Let’s take a closer look at each part.
How does the sense of taste work?
For centuries, we thought there were only 4 basic flavours – salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. You might have even been shown a map of where the tongue tasted each of these. Well, that was not quite right.1
First of all, the receptors for flavours are spread out across your entire tongue. Each bump on your tongue is a cluster of receptors. The receptor will send a signal to the brain when it senses the specific molecule that it connects with. Our brain then translates that signal into a taste.
Second, we know there are more than 4. Many researchers have suggested tastes to be added to the official list of basic tastes. But so far only 1 has become an official flavour – umami.
Let’s check out the 5 basic flavours in more detail: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
Lately, we’ve been hearing about sugar being particularly unhealthy. Parents are often worried about their kids having such a strong desire for sugar. But there is a good reason why kids like sugar so much.
They are growing a ton!
Sweetness is a signal that there are carbohydrates. Kids need a lot of energy, especially during a growth spurt! So, of course, their taste buds are going to be primed to love things that will help them grow!
Bitterness in food is generally found in plants. It is the plants’ defence to being eaten. It might also mean that a plant is poisonous. And to the annoyance of parents everywhere, kids are more sensitive to bitterness.
But that also makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If the bitterness of a plant meant that it was poisonous, we wouldn’t want kids to eat it! In those cases, it’s a good thing that they spit it out.
But it is annoying when they spit out the perfectly good veggies. But as kids see those veggies over and over, as they see adults eating and enjoying it, they will learn to like it.2
Bitterness also adds to the complexity and enjoyment of a dish when it is balanced out by the other basic flavours. This is why dark chocolate is more satisfying than milk chocolate. Milk chocolate is pure sweet. But the bitter notes of dark chocolate add a little something. When I eat milk chocolate, I constantly go back for more until it is gone. But with dark chocolate, it’s different. I can have a piece or two and be satisfied.4
Sourness in food comes from acids. In small concentrations, like fruit, it is a good thing. One reason we might enjoy it is because it means there is vitamin C in it.5
But, very strong sour tastes can mean that a food has gone bad. So we definitely don’t want to eat that!
Umami is a Japanese word meaning yummy. It was officially recognized as a basic taste in 2002.6 Umami is the savoriness of meat, mushrooms, and other foods.
Our taste buds have a receptor to recognize glutamine, an amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Nine of them, including glutamine, are essential – meaning we have to get them from food. The rest are non-essential, meaning we can make them from the essential ones.7
Is there a 6th basic taste?
While we currently only have 5 official tastes, we will most likely have several more join the ranks in the future. To prove a new taste, scientists aim to meet several criteria:
- There needs to be a reason why we would need to avoid or seek out the flavour
- There needs to be a specific compound (like sweet is triggered by sugar)
- There needs to be a specific receptor
- The signal needs to be sent through our taste nerves and processed by the brain
- It is different from other tastes
- There is a physical reaction in the body or people respond to it (by wanting more or avoiding it)
But it isn’t enough for a researcher to think they met all the criteria. They also have to convince other people that they have.
Let’s take a look at some of the candidates for the next official taste:
While fats give food a creamy texture, there is also research on whether our taste buds recognize fat. It is looking promising that we do, but from what they’ve found, it isn’t a pleasant taste.
The name itself is a bit of a mouthful: oleogustus. But before we talk about the taste, we need to talk a bit about fat.
Most of the fats in food are in a form called triglycerides.
Triglycerides are made up of a glycerol backbone that holds 3 fatty acids together. When you hear about saturated, unsaturated, or omega-3 fats, they are talking about the structure of the fatty acids.
The triglycerides give the creamy texture you think of when you think of fat. But oleogustus, the proposed name for this fat taste, is the taste of a single fatty acid. It is described as being a sour, unpleasant taste.
I imagine it is the taste of a bad sunflower seed. Have you ever been enjoying a bag of sunflower seeds in the shell, but then you bite down into one that is just nasty tasting? You never forget that taste. And I’m better that was the oleogustus.
The current understanding is that when we eat starchy foods like pasta, bread, potatoes, or rice we are tasting sugar. And the reason it doesn’t taste sugary is that the aroma and texture are different. This is based on knowing of an enzyme in our saliva called amylase which turns starch into sugar.
But according to some new research, starch may be it’s own taste. A group of researchers gave some people a compound that suppresses sweet tastes. The research participants were not able to taste simple sugars, but could taste some starchy components. They described it as being like bread, pasta, or rice.
The researchers were convinced, but they will still need other scientists to repeat their study. And they will need to prove the other criteria for starch to be officially named as a basic taste.
Many other compounds are at the beginning stages of research. Some have talked about calcium, carbon dioxide, and metal. But those are less convincing at this stage. Regardless, it seems very likely that we will one day have more than 5 basic tastes to talk about!
Your nose is another major player in the world of flavour. The difference in taste between a lime and a lemon comes from what you smell. It’s also why food tastes so bland when you have a cold and your nose is stuffed.
The smell is a huge part of flavour, and we can use that to our advantage. When you are experimenting with spices and herbs, use this trick. Smell or taste the food you are cooking. Then smell the spice or herb.
If they smell good together, they will taste good together!
Add a little at a time, tasting as you go, until you are happy with the taste – or decide to try adding something else!
Texture mostly refers to how the food feels when you bite down. Mouthfeel is how the food feels in your mouth – pretty self-explanatory. Some examples are: crunchy, smooth, soft, creamy, hot, cold.
Most likely, spicy and minty fit into this category too. Our mouths have receptors to tell us the temperature of the food and beverages in our mouth. It sends pain signals when it is too hot – who hasn’t experienced that with soup, coffee, or tea?
Capsaicin, the spicy part of hot peppers, triggers our temperature receptors. It is a pure accident of nature. Some animals, like birds, don’t have the same reaction. Menthol, from mint, would do the same, but opposite way, making us feel like our mouth is colder than it is.8
Now it’s time to experience!
Next time you have something to eat and drink, see if you can taste the basic flavours of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Experience the aromas that give hieghtened depth to the experience. Feel the textures and how the food feels in your mouth.
Notice how the flavours change from the first impression to the flavours that linger after the food itself is gone. Try to identify the spices and ingredients.
This is mindful eating. And it bring so much more enjoyment to each and every bite.
Flavour is complex. It is a combination of your sense of taste, smell, and touch. No wonder we get such pleasure from food and drinks.
Eating mindfully is one way to up the pleasure, and connect with our body. It also feeds into a more intuitive sense of what we need from our food.
When we savour each time we eat, it creates a moment to enjoy the good life.
Until next time, be good.9
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
If this interests you, join the newsletter to be the first to know about updates, new articles, and to try out tools as they are developed and improved. I hope to connect with you soon.
- This How Stuff Works article on taste perception has a neat image for you more visual learners. :)
- If you’re still skeptical, this is the basis for the Division of Responsibility. Check out Sarah Remmer’s article on feeding a toddler or young child You might also want to go straight to the source, Ellyn Satter . And if you find it hard, here’s a post to remind you that you aren’t alone in feeling that.
- You are in for a treat. I have listened to that podcast at least a half dozen times and tell everyone about it whenever I have the opening. :)
- If you are just starting to try dark chocolate, most packages will list the percentage of cocoa solids – either on the front of the package or under the ingredient list. The legal minimum is only 35%, but most are at least 50%, and that is a good place to start when you are first acquiring the taste. My favourite is 70-75%. Once it gets to 85%, the taste is fine, but it doesn’t melt in the mouth, so I enjoy it less.
- This is a great TED talk on this, and other info about taste.
- This article from NPR tells the story of where the 4 basic tastes (salty, sweet, sour, bitter) came from and how umami came to be the 5th official taste.
- There are a couple amino acids that are conditionally essential. Meaning that in some situations, the body has such a high need for them that we need to get it direct from food.
- Two sources that talk about this: https://bigpictureeducation.com/weird-facts-about-protein-receptors and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-we-sense-the-heat-of-chili-peppers-and-the-cool-of-menthol-excerpt/
- I was a teenager when I first remember my mom saying, “Be good,” when I left the house. When I left for university, and to this day, she ends most of our conversations in the same way.
Yes, she meant, ‘I love you’ and ‘stay out of trouble.’ But she also meant, ‘do what’s right.’ Follow what you know to be true for you. Learn from life and how to do things better.
Now that I’m trying to understand and evolve my philosophy of life; Now that I’m trying to help other people strive toward living the good life; I want to share that phrase, “Be good,” with you. Be good. Live the good life in whatever way you define that for yourself.