Weird Medicine

The Science Of Taste Buds: 6 Things Than Can Please Your Palate Or Put It Off

Woman eating a cookie and drinking coffee
These surprising factors — from utensil weight to music — can influence your sense of taste. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The tongue is able to recognize five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami — a Japanese loanword associated with savory food like meat and mushrooms. However, the flavors we experience when eating and drinking aren't so simple. Just like our other senses, taste can be manipulated by a variety of factors that are outside our control.

Up to 80 percent of the flavors we taste actually come from our sense of smell, which is why there's a link between aroma and appetite. As food aromas enhance appetite, that huger then comes around and increases our sensitivity to food aromas. Dr. Christina Major, a holistic nutritionist, naturopathic doctor, and “Health Recovery Expert” at Crystal Holistic Health Consulting in Sunbury, Pa., told Medical Daily in an email, “An overlooked area of food tastes is getting used to what we taste frequently.” We learn to build a tolerance to the smell and taste of foods, such as spicy foods, when we eat them often, but our acquired desensitization to certain tastes can also be influenced by a host of surprising factors, from a bittersweet symphone to a sweet emotion. 

Color Of Food

Our taste buds help us experience the five basic groups of taste, which send signals to our brain to interpret flavor. However, because we look at food before eating, our eyes send signals to our brain well before our taste buds get the chance to process the flavor. The color of our food can pre-determine how we will perceive the taste and flavor of our meal.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies found people’s judgments of flavor identity are often affected by the changing of a food or drink’s color. The participants in the study rated wine as tasting 50 percent sweeter if drunk under red light rather than under blue or white. This supports the popular theory that we’re attracted to red food because it signals ripeness, sweetness, and calories. It helps us determine the sources of enjoyment are when it comes to eating and drinking.

Color Of Kitchenware

From our plates to our mugs, color can have a significant impact on how we perceive the taste of food. A 2013 study published in the journal Flavour found participants felt that a red, strawberry-flavored mousse presented on a white plate was sweeter and more flavorful than when it was presented on a black plate. This puts emphasis on restaurants that it's important to present dishes in a visually appealing way. 

A recent study also published in the journal Flavour found the color of our mugs can influence how we taste our coffee. Drinking coffee from a blue mug made participants believe the coffee was sweeter, when compared to white or transparent mug. These findings have implications for café owners, baristas, and crockery manufacturers who should carefully consider the color of their mugs and other kitchenware.

Utensils

The type of cutlery we use can impact our perception of taste and how it affects the flavor of the food. Dr. Andrea Paul, a chief medical officer at Boardvitals.com told Medical Daily in an email food tastes different when “served with different colors or materials of utensils.” A 2013 study published in the journal Flavour found color contrast matters even when we eat yogurt. White yogurt on a white spoon was found to taste sweeter than pink yogurt on a white spoon. In addition, the weight of the utensils also impacts taste. Combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon was found to make yogurt taste better.

Food Labels

A simple food label could influence how we perceive the taste and overall quality of that food. A 1998 study published in the journal Appetite found that simply labeling a food — in this case bologna — as low-fat led people to say it tasted worse than its full-fat version. The experiment did not use any low-fat food at all, which means the participants were actually eating the full-fat bologna both times. This suggests health and diet labels can automatically have a negative effect on taste perception.

Music

The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" can either enhance the sweetness or bring out the bitterness of food. Abstract sound can actually turn our taste buds up or down like a remote control. A 2012 study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference found high-frequency sounds enhance the sweetness in food while low frequencies tend to give food a more bitter taste. This finding may could point to sound one day replacing sugar in drinks and food. 

Emotions

It is common for us to seek “comfort food” during times of stress because of our reward stimulus system, which is activated by the release of dopamine. “At some point, we experience a reward behavior that is linked to a particular food. That initial experience led to an increase in dopamine that we then want to have return. Hence the food associated with the experience now becomes what is craved,” Dr. Nicole Farmer, an internal medicine physician at Casey Health Institute in Gaithersburg, Md., told Medical Daily in an email. This is why, when we’re feeling low, we are not able to gauge how fatty our food.

A 1998 study published in the journal Biological Psychology found stress can alter the taste of food making it seem bitter and less sweet. The participants were asked to taste a sample of artificial sweeteners, and then did a series of stressful tasks like completing puzzles that were deliberately designed to be unsolvable by the researchers. Following these tasks, the group was asked to taste another sample of artificial sweetener and rate how bitter or sweet the sample was compared to the first sample. It was rated as bitterer and less sweet.

Our perceptions of taste, it seems, may lie in everything but the food itself. 

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