What we experience from food generally falls into five tastes: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Historically speaking, our ability to taste was geared much more toward self-preservation that it is today. Taste was used to sense prey in the ocean or warm us of poison. Our history with taste dates back more than 500 million years.
Our taste buds are home to specialized proteins called taste receptors that allow us to discern between these five tastes and they heavily influence our enjoyment of the food we eat. These receptors translate the information contained in the food we put into our mouths by adhering to molecules and dispatching signals via our nervous system to the brain that tells us what taste we are experiencing.
The taste we know as sweet is derived from sugars and a few select proteins which triggers pleasure in our brains and alerts us to the presence of energy.
The human body needs salt to maintain health. Too much and we respond negatively. But just the right amount of salt and we see that food as delicious.
- Sea salt
- Rock salt
- Foods that have been salted
We associate sour with that funny puckered face. You’ve seen it! Heck, you’ve experienced it. Biologically speaking, sour is thought to have been an early warning signal of sorts, telling us that the food we were eating was past its prime and likely unsafe for our consumption.
- Sourdough bread
- Pickled foods
Sound the alarms! The bitter taste screams “poison”. Found mostly in plants, bitterness is a taste that is best in small doses. The bitter taste is usually derived from the antioxidants in the plant which are also the source of the cancer fighting properties.
- Dark chocolate
- Green bean coffee
The word umami is borrowed from the Japanese and translates to “delicious taste” which couldn’t be more true. We identify rich tasting foods as umami, a taste that is triggered by certain amino acids. It is often described as savory and is common to foods that have been cured, aged, or cooked.
- Green tea
- Tomato sauce
- Aged cheese
- Soy sauce
- Cured meat
But to truly understand the five tastes you have to experience a range of foods. Experiment, taste test, explore, and be courageous. You just might be surprised by your affinity for bitter tones or the satisfaction of fermented foods that define umami.