Taste has a very different nature than the rest of the senses, and knowing the process behind it could surprise you. An Ohio University study set out to identify why some flavors appear stronger than others. The difference between savory and sweet is not in what you imagine.
Have you ever wondered why some flavors feel stronger than others? A study by the Ohio State University College of Medicine, United States, identified some essential factors to understand how the phenomenon of taste works inside our mouth.
From the kitchen to the mouth
The tongue is made up of about 3,000 taste buds that are divided into four types. The first three detect the different types of flavors; the fourth groups those known as filiform taste buds, which have less sensitivity to taste and are there in order to increase the friction of food with the tongue.
As a whole, “they act as a sea of seaweed in an ocean,” explains ENT professor and lead author of the paper, Kai Zhao, in a university statement. In this way, the papillae “move and balance as they come into contact with the food or drink we eat,” he adds.
As concluded in the study, the speed at which food moves in our mouth and the size of the molecules that make up food affect how we perceive taste. But how does this work?
Using a virtual simulation, Ohio scientists recreated the human tongue and brought it into contact with a variety of sweet and salty stimuli. As a porous surface, the spaces between each disc works like the holes in a sponge. It is through those holes that taste is perceived by the tongue.
From the speed of the interaction, they identified the first factor of taste. When flavors move quickly across the surface of the tongue, the taste buds get faster and more intense as well. On the contrary, if the food moves slowly inside the tongue, the process of feeling the taste is slower, and its intensity is milder.
In this process, a second distinction was reached. Those sweet stimuli, whose molecules are smaller than those of salty stimuli, are processed more quickly in the taste buds.
According to Zhao, this can happen because smaller molecules dissolve faster, so they need to move faster to be tasted than a larger molecule.
Taste and other senses
Unlike sight or sound, which perceive the visual or sound incentive almost immediately, the sense of taste is triggered late. Until now, it was unknown why this temporal difference existed, which enlarges or shrinks according to the different flavors. Behind it is mainly the size of the molecules of the food consumed.
Knowing a little more about the “complex process” behind sensitivity to taste is crucial, explains Zhao, since this sense fulfils determining functions in human functioning. “They help us decide how much food to eat, and how to balance the nutritional values it provides,” he says, as well as to distinguish those foods that could be poisonous or harmful to the body.