Tongue Function: Keeping Tastes Straight

The tongue has an amazing and wonderful job. Not only does it allow us to articulate our speech and regulate our saliva, but it is the foremost entity in our pleasurable eating experience. How our tongue and the taste buds therein differentiate between a multitude of tastes and textures every single time we eat something is pretty remarkable.

The complexity of the tongue and how it identifies tastes was recently studied at Columbia University Medical Center. It was found that the tongue, along with taste buds, uses specific molecules to help it communicate with the brain in order to identify the right taste. It turns out that the taste system is a process, and the way that we perceive the differences in tastes, as well as the types of tastes and the layers therein, is quite layered.

Five Taste Qualities

There is a rapid rate of cell turnover in the taste buds. This means they die off and are replaced at an exponential rate of speed. Because of this fact, it’s of interest to many researchers just how the tongue is able to maintain its sense of taste in such an organizational manner. The study showed that all of the tastes that we experience are some variety and combination of the five standard taste qualities. This actually gives your tongue greater exactitude. So instead of a flavor or taste profile of 40 or 50, all tastes can be reduced down to five, at least at their roots.

One of the principal researchers at Columbia, Professor Charles S. Zukor, states that “an organism’s survival can depend on its ability to distinguish attractive tastes like sweet from aversive ones like sour and bitter.” Yet, the tongue and taste buds often shift to include a positive experience when consuming foods of that taste type. While it’s hilarious to watch a baby eat a lemon for the first time, the reaction that is often garnered is the result of the lack of exposure to something of that taste makeup. Many people can eat sour candy or spicy food and love every moment of it and not flinch in the least bit. This is how amazing the tongue is.

Taste Mixtures

Human beings perceive taste by the tiny thousands of sensory organs otherwise known as taste buds. These are mostly located on the upper part of the tongue. Each individual taste bud has anywhere between 50 to 100 cells which contain their own set of molecules and receptors whose primary purpose is to differentiate between tastes. The main five types of tastes are sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami (savory). Everything you’ve ever consumed has been one or a mixture of these tastes. When the taste cells within the taste buds come into contact with these tastes, they then relay the specific information from the tongue to the brain.

Going back to the baby example, Zuker goes onto say that “…most portions of the brain circuits that govern taste are hardwired at birth, except in the tongue, where the cells in our taste buds – taste receptor cells – connect to taste neurons.” This is a process that takes time and continues to happen over the course of our lives. This also gives credence to that age-old saying about certain foods being “an acquired taste.” So many people start to actually enjoy the tastes of foods they once didn’t like.

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Tongue Function: Keeping Tastes Straight
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Tongue Function: Keeping Tastes Straight
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The complexity of the tongue and how it identifies tastes was recently studied at Columbia University Medical Center.
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