Do you remember the first time you tasted something sour?
How about salty, sweet, or bitter?
Sweetness, saltiness, and umami most likely came from either the breast milk of your mother, formula milk, or your first spoonful of baby food you’d ever tasted. Bitter may have come from the first medicine you ever had to take. And sour, probably the most memorable of all, may have been from a slice of lemon. A quick search on Youtube for videos of ‘Babies Trying Lemon for the First Time’ returns you plenty of funny results.
Q: What exactly is taste?
A: Taste is the sensation perceived in the mouth that is created by reactions from chemicals exposed to specific receptor cells on our tastebuds.
We encounter our 5 major basic tastes as a child.
In sensory evaluation, we begin to train tasters by refreshing their childhood memories: re-introducing the 5 basic tastes.
It seems simple at first. Why do we need to be reminded of what sweet, salt, sour, bitter, or umami is? We eat food every day! The reason why is that after the first introductions to these tastes at childhood, we don’t use them as descriptive words as much anymore. In sensory evaluation, the ability to identify and describe these tastes are important. Tasters may have gotten a little rusty since childhood and some may have even confused or switched some of these tastes in their mind.
By re-introducing the 5 basic tastes we can resolve any confusion and tasters can get used to describing what they’re tasting.
Let’s start with:
Ah, sweetness. It is the joy of life; the universal flavor of pleasure. This taste can be found in the most indulgent foods: chocolate, candy, ripe fruit, and dessert. Sweetness comes from foods that are high in sugars such as fructose or sucrose. Sugars give our body energy. From the dawn of human existence, we have sought out food that gives us energy to keep us hunting and gathering throughout the day. It’s not surprising that human beings naturally love and crave sweetness.
The taste of saltiness comes from sodium chloride which comes from sea water. Although not a spice it is considered the most common seasoning in the world as well as an essential nutrient to our body (sodium). We need salt to maintain homeostasis in our body. A good thing, since it’s one of the pleasurable tastes. When we crave something that is salty, it may be because our body is telling us we need more sodium.
Sour is the taste of acidity. A low PH. Humans are naturally adverse to this taste. Imagine things that are sour. Usually it means spoilage in meats or dairy, unripe fruit, or something that is too high in acid which can damage our mouth or lining of our stomachs. This basic taste probably originated as a ‘warning’ to the human. ‘Stop! Don’t eat me!’ As time went on, humans appreciated the taste of sour and its benefits. Think yogurt, sour beer, and pickles.
Bitter, a protective taste, is my least favorite (and probably yours, too). Like sour, humans usually think of it as an unpleasant taste. It makes sense considering that large amounts of bitter compounds that are found in plants are known to be toxic to humans. While some compounds are toxic, others tend to have medicinal properties. And like sour, we have learned to embrace bitterness and enjoy it in every day life: coffee, beer, arugula.
Umami is our 5th and newest basic taste. A newbie to the group and scientifically identified in Japan, the literal translation of umami is “yummy” in Japanese. Personally, it is my favorite. Umami is the taste of savoriness derived from glutamates and nucleotides. These glutamates and nucleotides are found in meats as well as vegetables such as mushrooms and seaweed. This one definitely goes in the universally pleasant category.
These five are just the ones that have been scientifically identified. The research on basic tastes is never finished. Scientists and researchers are constantly trying to identify the next basic taste. In the mean time, sensory folks will always return to the same five: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami.
What will be next?
Stayed tuned on Peas on Moss!
*Photos of babies obtained with permission from parents who are friends and acquaintances of the author.