Four… or more tastes?
What are tastes?
At the end of the 19th century, most scientific discourses proposed 4 tastes – sweet, salty, sour and bitter. These are called basic tastes.
- Sugar (sucrose) gives cakes and pastries their sweet taste.
- Table salt gives food a salty taste.
- Lemon juice and vinegar add a sour taste to salad dressing.
- Caffeine gives coffee its bitter taste.
Have you heard of the fifth basic taste, umami?
In 1908, the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda suggested a fifth basic taste, called umami. In Japanese, this means ‘tasty’.
Umami is actually a chemical molecule, sodium glutamate, found in a wide range of Asian dishes, as well as in meat, sauces and mature cheeses, etc.
Umami became the fifth basic taste in 1980
On the tip of your tongue?
For a long time, researchers believed that a specific part of the tongue picked up each taste. We now know that basic tastes are perceived by different parts of the tongue, to a greater or lesser extent.
For example, you perceive bitterness all over your tongue, but more intensely on the back of your tongue, whereas sweet food is best perceived on the tip of your tongue.
Do we talk about a strawberry flavour or a strawberry taste?
In everyday language, we tend to talk about a strawberry flavour. Yet, flavour is a mainly olfactory sensation, characterising strawberries by their odour and aroma. So, we should refer to a strawberry aroma and say that strawberries have a sweet and sour taste.
What are trigeminal sensations?
Refreshing, spicy and burning are also chemical perceptions that come from certain molecules such as the capsaicin in chilli peppers. These are known as trigeminal sensations.
These sensations are transmitted to your brain by your trigeminal nerve, which passes through your oral and nasal cavities, beneath your facial skin and into part of your eyes. This is why chilli peppers may cause a burning sensation in your mouth, why pepper makes us sneeze and onions make us cry.