Concepts in Tasting – how & why we can taste & smell.

Traditional Concepts in tasting stipulate that we have 4 styles of sensory receptors on our tongue which are specifically located in different places – more current discussion has a hard time believing that the human tongue is so strictly mapped but will agree on what  sensations are being tasted.

Our sense of taste is perceived by receptors (taste buds) on our tongue and flavor is largely carried by smell (more on this later…). Consider that our tongue is made of small bumps that can detect sensations like Sweetness, Acidity/Sour, Bitterness, and Salty – There are also 2 more taste sensations believed to be present known as: UMAMI (which is easily described as savory) and FAT (which is easily described as richness). These are considered sensations rather than flavors because we feel/sense these conditions in our mouth and don’t necessarily ‘taste‘ them.


As shown in the above info-graph, traditional concepts of tasting dictate that sweetness is detected at the tip of the tongue, salty along the sides closer to the tip, acidity on the sides of the tongue slightly further back to middle, and bitterness at the back towards the throat. This may also incorporate the conditions of ‘mouthfeel’ – which simplistically means the effects or sensations perceived in the mouth. For example the prickly feeling of a really carbonated beer, the drying mouth presence of tannin in a Australian red wine, or the mouth watering sensation of high acidity.

head-olfactory-nerveWhen we taste flavors it is largely conditioned by all our tasting senses – most importantly our Olfactory System (more commonly known as ‘Aroma’). This system is extremely more complex than our taste buds, with roughly 9 million neurons  with receptors in two distinct places in the nose and throat capable of registering 10,000 different aromas. Ever notice when you have a head cold that you have difficulty tasting your food? This is the reason why! Also as much as taste sensations are felt and flavor characteristics are conditioned by what we smell, aromas can be remembered. Aromas often trigger memory, therefore its possible to train the brain to remember certain flavors and aromas. This is a skill anyone can strengthen by training and being aware of what we smell in our daily lives.

Try this fun exercise to experiment with the sensory system, and test the difference between aroma and taste :

  • mix equal parts sugar and powdered cinnamon
  • plug your nose
  • while your nose is plugged, place a generously small amount in your mouth/ on your tongue
  • pay attention to what your tasting
  • release your nose
  • pay attention again to what your tasting

If done correctly, prior to releasing your nose you should only taste the sweetness from the sugar. After releasing your nose there should be an explosion of cinnamon flooding your senses. This is a great experiment to try on friends! CHEERS!


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