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What's New in the World of Taste Research

What's New in the World of Taste Research

James A. Fussell | The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Everybody talks about the taste of great food.

But hardly anyone talks about the tongue and the nose that make the tasting possible.

That’s a shame. Without them, the wonderful world of cooking and eating would be flavorless, devoid of personality.

Luckily, food can be memorable and desirable, even rise to the level of celebration and sensuality.

Thanks, of course, to your tongue and your nose.

But that brings up a small mountain of questions. For instance:

What exactly are taste buds, how do they work with the nose and why do they work so differently in one person compared to another? Why do our tastes sometimes change? What do taste buds look like? If dogs have taste buds, how come they’ll eat old shoes, cat litter and garbage? And while we all understand sweet, salty, sour and bitter, what is this new “umami” (or savory) taste that scientists discovered earlier this decade?

We turned to two experts at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, an independent, nonprofit research institute in Philadelphia. Leslie Stein is a science communications officer who has a doctorate in physiological psychology, and Danielle Reed is an expert in the genetics of bitter taste perception.

Q: So what’s new in taste research?

Stein: There’s a lot of work now trying to understand taste receptors and what the mechanisms are that allow us to detect different tastes. One of the reasons why we want to understand that is to be able to tweak those mechanisms.

Take the salty taste. We still don’t understand how that is detected. A complete understanding of that would be helpful if we wanted to help people decrease their salt by finding ways to enhance the taste of foods without so much sodium.

Another example is with bitter taste. The pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in (finding bitter blockers) because most medicines are bitter. And for pediatricians, compliance is very important, so that could be very beneficial.