It is remarkable that we still know so little about one of our most important senses: taste. Despite the significance of taste to survival and gratification much of what is written in basic books is outdated and we have only a rudimentary understanding of how our taste buds operate and how their sensations are translated into comprehensible sensations.
Taste provides both us with pleasure and protection: we use taste to evaluate everything that we put in our mouths. Taste mediates recognition of a substance and the final decision process before it is either swallowed and taken into the body, or rejected.
A new primer written by scientists at the Monell Center in Philadelphia and Florida State University is published in today’s issue of Current Biology. It provides a clear and accessible overview of recent advances in understanding human taste perception and its underlying biology.
Within the past few years, identification of receptors for sweet, bitter and umami (savory) taste has led to new insights regarding how taste functions. The Current Biology primer reviews the current state of knowledge regarding how taste stimuli are detected and ultimately translated by the nervous system into the perceptual experiences of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.
These perceptual evaluations are related to the function and the consequences of taste evaluation. These can range from pleasurable emotional reactions to the critical life-dependent response that causes a person to spit out a bitter potential toxin.
Paul Breslin, a sensory scientist at the Monell Center, had this to say,
“For all mammals, the collective influence of taste over a lifetime has a huge impact on pleasure, health, well being, and disease. Taste's importance to our daily lives is self-evident in its metaphors - for example: the 'sweetness' of welcoming a newborn child, the 'bitterness' of defeat, the 'souring' of a relationship, and describing a truly good human as the 'salt' of the earth."