Tackling Taste How Your Brain and Tongue Work Together

Your taste buds are sensory organs that enable you to perceive different flavors in food — in other words, to taste the food you eat.

Taste buds (also referred to as taste papillae) are not flowers. They're tiny bumps on the surface of your tongue (see Figure 15-1). Each one contains groups of receptor cells that anchor an antennalike structure called a microvillus, which projects up through a gap (or pore) in the center of the taste bud, sort of like a thread sticking through the hole in Life Savers candy. (For more about the microvilli and how they behave in your digestive tract, see Chapter 2.)

The microvilli in your taste buds transmit messages from flavor chemicals in the food along nerve fibers to your brain, which translates the messages into perceptions: "Oh, wow, that's good," or "Man, that's awful."

The four (maybe five) basic flavors

Your taste buds definitely recognize four basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Some people add a fifth basic flavor to this list. It's called umami, a Japanese word describing richness or a savory flavor associated with certain amino acids such as glutamates — I talk more about monosodium glutamate (MSG) later in this section — and soy products such as tofu.

Early on, scientists thought that everyone had specific taste buds for specific flavors: sweet taste buds for sweets, sour taste buds for sour, and so on. However, the prevailing theory today is that groups of taste buds work together so that flavor chemicals in food link up with chemical bonds in taste buds to create patterns that you recognize as sweet, sour, bitter, and salt. The technical term for this process is across-fiber pattern theory of gustatory coding. Receptor patterns for the fave four (sweet, sour, bitter, salt) have been tentatively identified, but the pattern for umami remains elusive.

Flavors are not frivolous. They're one of the factors that enable you to enjoy food. In fact, flavors are so important that MSG is used to make food taste better. MSG, most often found in food prepared in Chinese restaurants, stimulates brain cells. People who are sensitive to MSG may actually develop Chinese restaurant syndrome, which is characterized by tight facial muscles, headache, nausea, and sweating caused by overbouncy brain cells. Very large doses of MSG given to lab rats have been lethal, and the compound is banned from baby food. However, no real evidence indicates that a little MSG is a problem for people who aren't sensitive to it. Which leaves only one question: How does MSG work? Does it enhance existing flavors or simply add that umami flavor on its own? Believe it or not, right now nobody knows. Sorry about that.

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