How Do Taste Buds Really Work?


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I've been a picky eater all my life. When I was a kid, my mom would have to make me a separate dinner on certain nights because I refused to eat what she was making for the rest of my family. I was an extremely annoying kid. Thankfully as I have gotten older, I have been willing to try more exotic foods and I can say that my mom no longer has to make me a different meal from my family. However, I would always get mad when my family would get frustrated with me if I didn't like a particular food. It was once thing if I just refused to try it, but if I didn't like it, you can only blame that on my taste buds right?
For a simple overview of tastebuds, there are around 10,000 of them and each of them picks up sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami tastes. Although taste buds allow us to enjoy all the savory, rich flavors there are in foods, their main purpose is to protect us against poisonous food we could potentially eat on accident. So it seems like taste buds do all the work when it comes to eating and tasting certain flavors, however there is another component that is equally important.
Smell plays a huge role when someone is eating food. We've all heard of the trick of plugging your nose when you have to eat something you don't like and this is why that is a good recommendation. As this article states, we may think a particular food tastes like another food, but our taste buds only recognize 5 specific tastes so our sense of smell had to effect our perception of taste. If you're interested on some theories as to why men and women crave different foods or how texture and culture effect what foods we like, I suggest reading that second article, it's pretty interesting and you can see what theories hold true for you.
So how do scientists know smell effects taste? At the end of the second article, people in a newsroom tried three different flavors of jelly beans: black licorice, banana, and cappuccino. Each person closed their eyes and plugged their nose and as they ate a jelly bean they had to guess what flavor they were eating. On average only 33% of the people guessed right. I think that definitely says something about how smell effects your taste considering how different all three of those flavors are. However, this study was not very professionally done. Yes, it was already a pretty sure thing that smell effected taste, but if you were to just go off this one test, it's not too reliable. They only used people in the newsroom and chances are that wasn't too many people. So not only is the study small, but it doesn't give a good variety of people. 
With that being said, it's pretty clear that taste buds don't act on their own when dealing with taste and flavors of foods. So for those of you who are like me who are pretty picky when it comes to food, you can explain this to the people who make fun of you and maybe they'll lighten up with the jokes.

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Photo courtesy of http://www.deltadentalarblog.com

2 Comments

As a kid I always refused to eat broccoli and I still hate it to the day so I feel your pain. But the tongue is an interesting part of the body because of how small it is an how intricate it can be. The tongue which can detect different types of tastes quicker than others generally can detect sweet and salt tastes at the tip of the tongue. Bitter tastes take a little longer because they are detected on the back of the tongue. Although it varies person to person it can be different. Another thing common in America is MSG which affects taste sensitivity as well, its like a drug for your tongue as it intensifies particular tastes in food. I've always wondered what made things have an after taste or why certain foods made your breath smell bad as well.
Click Here to learn more interesting things about your tongue you probably didn't know

In high school, we did a lab in Anatomy that was extremely similar to this whole theory where we had to test our taste buds with the reaction we felt from placing chemicals on our tongues. It was an extremely cool experiment and I learned that I am a "super-taster" where I react to all tastes. It really is a experiment that I recommend all people try out. Tastebuds is a very interesting topic for me, because I have a huge bare patch on my tongue where I was convinced I lost tastebuds because I burned them off from a candy called "ShockTarts" seven years ago. Apparently, you always are regenerating tastebuds, so I technically should have them back right now, so maybe it wasn't tastebuds I lost I just could have a "geographic tongue". http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/guide/geographic-tongue

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