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5 Reasons We Taste What We Taste

Daisy Chow | Chef's Blade

The 5 Primary Tastes


The tongue is the main sensory organ for the taste system. Taste receptor cells on the tongue are clustered into papillae—little bumps commonly known as tastebuds—but taste cells are also found on the roof of the mouth, in the throat, and even in the small intestine (where they may help regulate appetite). Taste cells have chemical receptors that detect specific molecules in food. For example, taste cells that recognize the taste of sweet have receptors that bind to parts of sugar molecules. When it’s stimulated by a sugar molecule, the taste cell signals a nearby nerve, which carries the message to the brain that you are eating something sweet.

Taste receptor cells are specifically tuned to each of the primary tastes, sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Why these 5? It’s likely that sweet indicates ripe, edible fruits and sugary foods that are high in carbohydrates to provide energy, while saltiness indicate the presence of minerals like salt, sourness detects acids, and bitterness detects poisons. Umami may be an indicator of proteins. Essentially, the 5 tastes are one way humans have evolved to distinguish the edible from the harmful.


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