Taste: An Unsung Gift of the Holidays

By Eliza Mitchell

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Courtesy of Stonybrook Cookie

Ah, the holidays. Such a stimulating time for the senses: bright colors; loud, spirited music; strong smells; the sting of wrapping paper cuts… and the taste of delicious treats made especially for the time at hand. As my mom is a baker, this latter experience is usually the biggest telltale sign heralding in the time of the holidays at my house, in addition to the aromas emanating from the oven. When things aren’t being given to customers, my siblings and I are conveniently nearby to offer our opinions of her newest batch of cookies or seasonal specials, but what is looked for exactly in a “good” treat? Well, beyond texture, flavor and taste are most important. Flavor, is not just for the tongue, it is based on olfactory and gustatory elements. Taste, on the other hand, is a chemical sensation geared towards your taste buds, which are made up of receptor cells that transmit the information to the brain. In the end, when one judges a food item, they are more apt to comment on the taste before anything else.

There are five different tastes that one can experience: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.  The lattermost is probably the least self-explanatory. A Japanese term, umami loosely translates to mean “savory.” With these five tastes, humans are able to judge whether or not they like what they are eating. Some people enjoy sweet more than salty, and others are sour or bitter enthusiasts. The way that we experience taste is through sensation and perception. The tongue recognizes the presence of food, and this provides a sensation that sends a message to the brain for it to gain a perception on what touched the tongue. This is a very basic explanation on what happens on the large-scale, but what happens on the microscopic level is much more fascinating.

Like smell, taste involves the activation of chemoreceptors in order to perceive an experience. These chemoreceptors are called gustatory receptor cells, which are located in the taste buds along with basal and supporting cells. There are fifty chemoreceptors per taste bud. The taste buds are then housed in papillae, which are the bumps we see on our tongue. Even smaller are the hair cells that are on the receptors, which protrude through the taste pores. When our food mixes with saliva, the combination interacts with these cells to create the taste sensation.

Humans are unique in the way they taste things. For example, worms can only tell what is dangerous to them, and what is not, before ingesting it. They do not have the range that we do. Unfortunately, this ability to tell poisonous foodstuffs from nonpoisonous ones is not a talent we have evolved with, and history only has evidence to attribute to this. Yet, there is something quite nice about being able to bite into a molten hot chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven. It’s quite worth the forsaking of the ability to tell the difference between an arsenic-laden morsel and a safe one, don’t you think? Regardless of your opinion, have a great holiday season!

Eliza Mitchell can be reached for comment at [email protected]