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Tongue More Important to Food Enjoyment Than We Thought?

It’s a culinary convention – not unsupported by science – that ‘as much as 70 percent of the sensation of tasting involves savouring the aromas of your food’.  Now, scientists have discovered that the same kind of receptors that pick up aromas in your nose are also present on your tongue.

Taste Buds Under Microscope - © Sem Photograph via PintrestTaste buds revealed by a scanning electron microscope:
They have smell as well as taste receptors!

You’ve probably tried the old experiment: hold your nose and see what your favourite foods taste like. The answer is, not much. At least, they taste ‘less’ than they would if you took a good sniff with each forkful. That stunt has been used for years to demonstrate the separation of ‘Church and State’ between the tongue and the nose. For years, it’s been accepted that ‘tasting’ is actually the combination in your brain of Sweet, Salt, Sour, Bitter and Umamai signals from your tongue with complex aroma signals from your nose. Even the experts agree that the aroma signals may be more important overall to the enjoyment of food. But a new discovery suggests that the tongue may, in fact, be the leading arbiter of taste.

What they did

Study Senior Author Dr. Mehmet Ozdener, a Cell Biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, first became interested in the notion that your tongue may also be able to ‘smell’ when his 12-year-old son asked him why snakes extend their tongues to smell.

Using genetic and biochemical methods to probe taste cells, the researchers found that the human taste cells contain many key molecules known to be present in olfactory receptors. Other experiments by the Monell team demonstrated that a single taste cell can contain both taste and olfactory receptors.

What they still want to find out

Because there are more than 400 known types of olfactory receptors in the human nose, scientists want to conduct further studies to determine which ones are present in the tongue, if they are preferentially located with Sweet, Salt, Sour or Bitter receptors, and how they may modify the signals from the taste receptors.

The takeaway

Given insights into such questions, they could open the way to a whole new understanding of human taste perception.

My take

Just knowing how Salt and Pepper effect the taste buds is a big enough thing for most cooks to handle. Then, there’s the amplifying action that Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) has on the palate. Imagine if we could discover which molecules selectively trigger specific responses in specific taste and olfactory receptors? That could lead to a whole new culinary specialty: let’s call it ‘Flavour Sculpting’!

~ Maggie J.

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