Basic taste

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Human taste sensory organs, called taste buds or gustatory calyculi, and concentrated on the upper surface of the tongue, appear to be receptive to relatively few chemical species as tastes. This contrasts markedly with the sense of olfaction, where very large numbers of different species can be differentiated.



Five tastes are known to be sensed by taste buds: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami. Until recently, most Western sources listed only the first four; in recent years, the fifth taste -- umami (savoriness) -- has become widely accepted. The most familiar example of an "umami" taste is that of the common food additive MSG.

In general, the sense of taste is often confused by smells that occur at the same time, and much of the everyday sensation of taste is derived from smell stimuli. Loss of the sense of smell (anosmia), for example when one has a cold, severely reduces one's sense of taste.

Historically, the science of how humans sense taste has been full of misunderstandings. For many years, books on the physiology of human taste contained diagrams of the tongue showing levels of sensitivity to different tastes in different regions. There is no scientific foundation for these "maps", which were based on a misinterpretation of old research.

Umami was traditionally well recognized in many East Asian countries. Umami is often found in protein, some vegetables, and fermented foods, such as soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, and black bean sauce. Umami plays a particularly important role in Japanese foods: it is often extracted from fish, sea kelp, and/or shiitake mushrooms to create Japanese-style soup stock, commonly called "dashi", which is used in almost every Japanese dish.

Although umami was not as well recognized in Western countries until recently, many Western dishes benefit from including umami. For instance, soup stocks, anchovies, some cheeses, and tomato sauce/ketchup, all widely used, contain umami.

The ancient Chinese Five Elements philosophy lists slightly different five basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and hot instead of umami.


Saltiness is a taste produced by the presence of sodium chloride (and to a lesser degree other salts). The ions of salt, especially sodium (Na+) is detected by ions channels on the tongue, leading to action potential.


Sourness is the taste that detects acids. The mechanism for detecting sour taste is similar to that which detects salt taste. Hydrogen ion channels detect the concentration of protons (H+ ions) that have dissociated from an acid.


Main article: Sweetness

Sweetness is produced by the presence of sugars, some proteins and a few other substances. Sweetness is detected by a variety of G protein coupled receptors coupled to the G protein gustducin found on the taste buds. At least two different variants of the "sweetness receptors" need to be activated for the brain to register sweetness. The compounds which the brain senses as sweet are thus compounds that can bind with varying bond strength to several different sweetness receptors. The differences between the different sweetness receptors is mainly in the binding site of the G protein coupled receptors. And yet sour still has a sweet taste to some.

Examples of sweet substances, with average human detection thresholds in molar
Sucrose10 mM
Lactose30 mM
1-Propyl-2-amino-4-nitrobenzene2 μM


Bitterness, like sweetness, is sensed by G protein coupled receptors coupled to the G protein gustducin. Many people find bitter tastes to be unpleasant; many alkaloids taste bitter, and evolutionary biologists have suggested that a distaste for bitter things evolved to enable people to avoid poisoning.

The bitterest substance known is the synthetic chemical denatonium (e.g. under the trademark Bitrex [1] (, discovered in 1958. Denatonium benzoate is a white, odourless solid used as an aversive agent, i.e. an additive that prevents accidental ingestion of a toxic substance by humans, particularly children, and by animals.

The substance phenylthiocarbamide tastes very bitter to most people, but is virtually tasteless to others. This genetic variation in the ability to taste a substance has been a source of great interest to those who study genetics.


Savoriness or umami is the name for the taste sensation produced by the free glutamates commonly found in fermented and aged foods, for example parmesan and roquefort cheeses, as well as soy sauce and fish sauce. It is also found in significant amounts in various unfermented foods such as walnuts, grapes, broccoli, tomatoes, and mushrooms, and to a lesser degree in meat. The glutamate taste sensation is most intense in combination with sodium. This is one reason why tomatoes exhibit a stronger taste after adding salt. Sauces with umami and salty tastes are very popular for cooking, such as tomato sauces and ketchup for Western cuisines and soy sauce and fish sauce for East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.

The additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), which was developed as a food additive in 1907 by Kikunae Ikeda, produces a strong umami taste. Umami is also provided by the nucleotides IMP (disodium 5’-inosine monophosphate) and GMP (disodium 5’-guanosine monophosphate). These are naturally present in many protein-rich foods. IMP is present in high concentrations in many foods, including dried Bonito flakes (Used to make Dashi, a Japanese broth). GMP is present in high concentration in dried Shiitake mushrooms, used in much of Asian cooking. There is a synergistic effect between MSG, IMP and GMP which together in certain ratios produce a strong umami taste.

Umami is considered basic in Japanese and Chinese cooking, but is not discussed as much in Western cuisine, where it is sometimes referred to as "savory", "meaty" or "moreish."

The name comes from umami (旨味 or うまみ), the Japanese name for the taste sensation. The characters literally mean "delicious flavour."

In English, the name of the taste is sometimes spelled umame, but umami (which conforms to the romanization standards of Japanese) is much more common, as in Society for Research on Umami Taste (

The same taste is referred to as xiānwi (鮮味) in Chinese cooking.

A subset of umami taste buds responds specifically to glutamate in the same way that sweet ones respond to sugar. Glutamate binds to a variant of G protein coupled glutamate receptors.


  • Kikunae Ikeda. (1909). New Seasonings. (see the site (
  • Bernd Lindemann, Yoko Ogiwara, and Yuzo Ninomiya. (2002). The Discovery of Umami. (see the site (

External links

Sensory system - Gustatory system Edit (

Tongue - Taste bud - Gustatory cortex - Basic tastes

de:Gustatorische Wahrnehmung nl:smaak (zintuig) sv:Grundsmak


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