Taste (sensory impression)

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The Sour Lemon
painting by Julius Geertz (1867)

The term taste is broadly defined (from Middle High German gesmac , 'scent, smell, stink, taste', to smcken : 'taste, try; smell, smell, smell; perceive', from Old High German smcken , 'feel taste', in contrast to smackën 'give taste from oneself') understood a complex sensory impression when eating, which is created by the multimodal interplay of smell and taste as well as the sense of touch , temperature and pain . In many cases, the sensations referred to as “taste” of a food primarily result from aromas that are perceived by the sense of smell and less from stimuli within the oral cavity. Therefore, a disturbed olfactory perception as with a cold or a complete loss of the sense of smell ( anosmia ) leads to a clearly impaired perception of the food being tasted.

The biological importance of taste is due to its role in finding food and in examining food before it is swallowed and ingested. In interaction with other sensory modalities, the sensual impression of the taste is captured in a sensory image, with which the food can now be compared and selected, and thus searched for or avoided.

In humans, even newborns show preferences for certain taste qualities and prefer sweet and umami , while an innate aversion to bitter and sour foods can be determined. Natural substances that are toxic to the human organism mostly taste bitter and rarely sweet. Natural energy-rich foods have a particularly pleasant taste. And the preferred taste quality umami indicates animal or vegetable protein sources. The production of saliva and gastric juice can be reflexively stimulated by smell and taste sensations before or during eating or drinking . A taste that is perceived as unpleasant, on the other hand, can trigger a gag reflex or, in extreme cases, even lead to vomiting .

The gustatory and olfactory systems develop in the fetus as early as the second month of pregnancy ; From the third month onwards, the unborn child perceives the taste of its amniotic fluid and is influenced by it even before birth with a view to future taste preferences.

The sensitivity to the perception of taste stimuli is also genetically determined and individually different in humans. Researchers differentiate between normal, super and non-tasters. The ability to perceive taste generally decreases with age, and strong smell and taste impairments can lead to a loss of appetite .

The evaluation of a taste, which is influenced by enculturation and socialization , must be distinguished from the taste sensation . In most cultures, for example, the innate taste aversion to bitter substances is not absolutely retained for life, as can be demonstrated by the consumption of coffee or beer . The hedonistic evaluation of taste influences the development of preferences and aversions , whereby individual experiences play an important role. Which taste is perceived as pleasant “is, with a few exceptions, not a natural property of the food or dishes, but a cultural attribution that eaters orient themselves by and which they largely adopt. (...) Taste, enjoyment and cuisine are the product of a long coordination process in which the kitchen implements taste and enjoyment expectations in practice ”.


There are currently five taste qualities that are generally scientifically recognized: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami . Each of them has its own taste receptors on the tongue. In 2005, additional special fat receptors were first discovered in mice and rats. Older studies assumed that high-fat food was recognized by the smell and texture of the food alone. In 2011 the existence of a fat receptor could also be proven in humans. The existence of other taste qualities, such as metallic or alkaline, is still controversial.

The receptors of the sensory cells in the taste buds can only taste substances when they have dissolved or distributed in contact with the saliva . It is now known that not every area of ​​the tongue is sensitive to taste, but that every region of the tongue that is sensitive to it reflects all gustatory qualities, albeit with small differences (in the past, real taste zones were wrongly assumed for the individual basic qualities). Sweet things are perceived more strongly in the area of ​​the tip of the tongue and bitter things predominantly in the rear area of ​​the tongue, towards the base of the tongue.

In fact, mostly only a small part of the sensations perceived as taste (in a broader sense) is based on stimuli from the taste receptors. The often by far predominant part is caused by volatile aromatic substances that irritate the olfactory epithelium in the uppermost nasal passage. When chewing or moving a food back and forth in the mouth, the volatile components pass through the throat and the choans into the nasal cavity, where they can be registered by the olfactory cells . Smell and taste stimuli are picked up by sensory cells and their signals are transmitted via nerve fibers on separate paths to the brain, where they are distributed to different stations and compared with others. These differentiations are first combined in the thalamus of the diencephalon and then worked up in the cerebral cortex to form more complex patterns such as a (possibly conscious) sensory impression. As with any sensory perception, the overall impression of a taste arises only in the brain, and if we can become aware of it, probably only in the endbrain . The role that olfactory perception can play for the sensation commonly referred to as taste was shown in an experiment in which the test subjects drank a cup of hot water while blindfolded while the smell of coffee was passed into the laboratory. All participants were convinced that they would drink coffee beans. Whether this impression would also have arisen if a cup of hot sea water had addressed the gustatory perception has not been investigated.

The biochemical transduction can proceed differently in the case of taste stimuli; the pathways of signal transduction in sensory cells with taste receptors for sweet or bitter stimuli are more complex, so that signal formation and transmission takes just under a second, while sour and salty foods are recognized more quickly. The signals formed by the secondary sensory cells in taste buds on the tongue and on the palate are picked up by nerve cell processes via synapses and transmitted as neural signals via nerve fibers of cranial nerves - taste fibers of the VII. Facial nerve ( chorda tympani and nervus petrosus major ), the IX. Glossopharyngeal nerve and the X vagus nerve - forwarded to the nucleus tractus solitarii of the medulla oblongata in the central nervous system . From there, connections lead to the nucleus ventralis posteromedialis in the ventral thalamus , others to the hypothalamus and the amygdala . This is where the transmission of signals from the sense of smell also end. This is where it is decided whether a taste quality is classified as pleasant or unpleasant.

Taste stimuli are only recognized when their concentration exceeds the perception threshold. It is lowest for bitter substances. The intensity of the taste sensation decreases if the same stimulus persists, habituation ( adaptation ) takes place and thus the ability to perceive the same taste stimulus with the same intensity or even at all decreases. Depending on the intensity of the taste impression, this habituation effect lasts only minutes or hours. In the case of acidic or salty stimuli, there is no complete adaptation. However, regular salt consumption leads to a persistently lower sensitivity to this taste stimulus. This habit is also discussed for sweet substances.

The perception of taste is influenced by the temperature of the food. All taste stimuli are most noticeable at temperatures between 22 and 32 ° C. Sweet and bitter are only tasted weakly at a temperature of 0 ° C. Hunger lowers the taste threshold for sugar and quinine , while the perception of the taste stimuli salty and sour is not changed.

Spicy taste

Red chilli pepper, cut open

What is perceived as “spiciness” in food is in reality not a gustatory stimulus at all, but a pain sensation on the tongue, triggered by certain irritating substances, usually capsaicinoids . Chilli contains the tasteless substance capsaicin , which biochemically stimulates the thermoreceptors of the trigeminal nerves in the mouth when eaten, which then send a pain signal to the brain. The same receptors react to heat stimuli above 43 ° C, i.e. to hot food that "burns" your tongue. The brain reacts to the stimulus by triggering a pain sensation on the tongue and releases endorphins to relieve pain , which trigger pleasant feelings. There is also the term “pepper high” for this reaction. It is debated whether this hormone reaction triggers a certain psychological dependence on chilli or other hot spices ; however, this theory is controversial. With regular consumption of spicy food, the sensitivity of the receptors also decreases, so that the sharpness is felt less strongly.

In 2003, researchers at the University of California found that capsaicin on the tongue activates the sharpness receptor TRPV1, which is otherwise blocked by a lipid . If this comes into contact with capsaicin, the bond is released and pain is reported to the brain. The strength of the bond between TRPV1 and the lipid PIP2 is individually different and, above all, genetically determined, so that the perception of sharpness is also individually different.

Like “burning” the tongue, capsaicin leads to impaired taste perception, but only for sweet, bitter and umami, while sour and salty continue to taste unchanged. Sugar, on the other hand, reduces the spiciness of capsaicin.

Also eucalyptus or menthol is perceived "sharp" on the tongue as, for example, as an additive in candy. However, the cold receptors on the tongue react to these substances.

Genetic differences

Adriaen Brouwer : The bitter drink , around 1636–1638

The sensitivity to the perception of taste stimuli is genetically determined and individually different. It decreases in people with age.

People differ in the number of taste cells on the tongue. A distinction is made between super tasters with an average of around 425, normal tasters with around 180 and non-tasters with only around 100 taste buds per cm². The values ​​found in investigations vary in a range from 11 to 1000 taste buds per cm². Based on the results of studies, it is estimated that around half of the world's population are normal tasters and around a quarter each are super or non-tasters. Super gourmets generally perceive taste stimuli much more intensely, especially bitter substances , but also the sharpness of taste . Scientists generally speak of PTC or PROP tasters and non-tasters, as research in this area initially focused on the perception of bitter substances. The existence of non-gourmets has been known since the 1930s. For some time, the 25 genes responsible for bitter taste have been deciphered, of which there are also different variants. There are thousands of different bitter substances in nature. If such a gene is not active, it does not form receptors for certain bitter substances on the surface of the tongue. There is only one type of receptor for sweets.

The available study results indicate that the proportion of PTC / PROP tasters is generally higher in women than in men. There are also differences between different ethnic groups . In Asia and Africa, the share of tasters is higher than in Europe and the USA.

In 2002 the first receptor for bitter substances was precisely localized and named TAS2R16. He is responsible for cyanogenic β-glucopyranosides , which release hydrogen cyanide after consumption . In 2005, English researchers analyzed blood samples from 1000 test subjects worldwide and found 16 variants of this bitter gene. Most of them are very rare, however, around 98 percent of the world's population today have the same gene variant, called N172. In Africa around 15 percent of the population have the evolutionarily earlier variant K172, which is only half as sensitive. The fact that the earlier type has survived in Africa could be due to the fact that the consumption of foods containing hydric acid represents a potential health risk and promotes sickle cell anemia , which in turn offers protection against some malaria pathogens .

A total of 51 genes are responsible for the formation of the olfactory receptors, but never all of them are active. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute for Science in Israel have found that every person has an individual gene combination for odor, so that each person has a unique perception due to the mathematically possible number of gene combinations. Since the ability to smell is very important for the perception of taste, basically every person is equipped not only with an individual smell, but also with an individual taste perception, which is why the taste of a food is never perceived as completely identical by different people.

Taste imprint


The infant's taste is predetermined through the breast milk.

Humans already have a preference for the taste qualities of sweet and umami in newborns, while at the same time there is an innate aversion to bitter and sour foods, which is expressed in them in a facial defense reflex and the attempt to spit out appropriate liquids. This response is known as the "gustofacial reflex". Adolescents develop a certain preference for salty taste, and infants do not usually show a pronounced reaction to it.

The gustatory system has an important biological function, as it is used to test the edibility of food before it is swallowed. The preference for sweet things makes sense in evolutionary terms, because sweet taste is linked to carbohydrates , which are an important source of energy. In addition, toxins occurring in nature rarely taste sweet, so this taste stimulus indicates harmlessness when eating. Ripe fruits and honey are particularly sweet in nature . The innate aversion to bitter substances developed in the course of evolution as a protective function against poisonous plant substances, which mostly taste bitter. The preferred taste quality umami indicates an animal or vegetable protein source. Salt is important for various body functions, the salt level in the body must remain constant, so the perception of salty taste is important. In nature, sour is an indication that fruits are not yet ripe or that food is spoiled. This taste is generally rejected by children up to the age of two.

The gustatory and olfactory systems develop in the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy . The tongue with the taste buds arises in the second month of pregnancy. From the third month the unborn child perceives the taste of the amniotic fluid ; it drinks between 200 and 760 ml of it daily. Even before the 28th week it has been shown to react positively to sweet taste stimuli and negatively to bitter foods. Reactions to odors have been observed from week 28.

As various studies have shown, the mother's diet contributes to the child's taste through the amniotic fluid even before birth. Children whose mothers had consumed aniseed during pregnancy showed a significantly higher acceptance of the aniseed odor after birth than other children. One study found an association between the child's birth weight and a preference for salty taste. Underweight infants preferred saline water solutions at the age of two months, all others preferred pure water. This preference was still present in the children between the ages of three and four years. A connection with the taste of the amniotic fluid in the final stages of pregnancy is likely.

Since breast milk contains lactose and protein, it tastes both sweet and umami, which corresponds to innate taste preferences. During breastfeeding, it has been shown that the child's taste preferences are influenced by the mother's diet, as the aromas of the food pass into the breast milk. Familiar tastes of foods are more readily accepted after weaning.

In contrast to breast milk, the taste of ready-made food for infants does not change, but it can also have a flavor-shaping effect. Vanillin used to be added to finished milk in Germany . In one study, subjects aged 30 to 40 were asked to evaluate the taste of two types of ketchup . One of them was flavored with vanillin, in the same concentration as baby food back then. Two thirds of the subjects who had previously received this diet preferred the ketchup with added vanilla, but only 30 percent of the former breastfeeding children. If infants receive hypoallergenic substitute milk, which tastes relatively bitter, at an early stage, they tolerate the bitter taste to a significantly higher degree than their peers even years later. From the 5th month of life, babies refuse bitter milk if they have not been fed it beforehand.


Deep fried crickets in a market in Cambodia

Building on the innate taste preferences and aversions, human taste and the preference for certain taste notes and the aversion to others develop in the course of socialization and enculturation . What is decisive is the respective food culture and the general taste pattern of a regional or national cuisine . This explains why the taste of the same food is valued in one culture and rejected in another (see also food taboo ).

The formation of taste is based on a learning process. The more often a food is eaten in early childhood, the greater the acceptance of its taste becomes. This familiarization process is scientifically called “ mere exposure effect ”. If the same food is eaten several times within a short period of time, however, a temporary aversion to this dish develops ("psychological satiety"), provided it has a distinct taste of its own. The mechanism presumably prevents a completely unbalanced diet in healthy people. This saturation effect does not occur with staple foods such as rice, potatoes or pasta.

Individual likes and dislikes develop only within the framework that is given by one's own eating culture. “By experiencing the specific cultural system of the kitchen as early as childhood and becoming part of the entire socialization process of a young person, this also serves to standardize behavior later when choosing food and dishes. The taste of food therefore not only conveys a piece of familiar social security and integration into certain ethnic and social groups and classes not only in childhood, but also later in the adult world. "

However , according to Eva Barlösius, there is a correlation between the cuisine of a country or region and the taste of food, because the taste expectations in turn shape the type of cooking, with the recipes having the function of ensuring that a certain dish always tastes the same. “Taste, enjoyment and cuisine are therefore closely linked, which is why the kitchen can be defined as a set of cultural rules that instructs you to prepare tasty and enjoyable dishes. No kitchen is known in which food is cooked in such a way that it is not tasty for the eaters in the social and cultural environment in which it is cooked. ”However, the preparation of food is not just for sensual enjoyment, it is primarily fulfilling the function of the supply of energy and nutrients . In everyday food , therefore, the main focus is on the function of satiety , while taste plays an important role in festive dishes.

Taste rating

The assumption that people can objectively perceive and judge taste has been refuted by various studies. According to the results, even professional tasters are influenced by the appearance and, above all, by their own expectations. In one trial, 57 oenologists had to rate two wines, one labeled as a table wine and the other as a grand cru . In fact, both bottles contained the same wine. In the evaluation, the supposed table wine received only 8, while the Grand Cru received 14 out of 20 points. In another experiment, a white wine and a red wine were allegedly tasted blindly, that is, without any further information about the wines. In reality, both glasses contained the same white wine, one sample had been colored red with tasteless food coloring. The oenologists attributed typical white wine aromas to the white wine and red wine aromas to the alleged red wine. The scientists drew the conclusion from this that the taste impression arises in the head.

The assessment of the taste of food as pleasant or unpleasant is strongly influenced by culture. The taste of dairy products and especially cheese is only valued in those regions where these products are commonly eaten. In regions where most people are lactose intolerant , this is not the case. For example, the Chinese generally reject the taste and smell of cheese and refer to it as “spoiled milk”.

In an experiment, the restaurateur Heston Blumenthal served guests a red jelly made from beetroot to which he had added tartaric acid to create a sour taste. When this "dessert" was called blackcurrant jelly , the subjects tasted it, but when told it was beetroot (which it was), they disliked the taste as disgusting.

Taste disorders

Human tongue

Taste disorders can be qualitative or quantitative. A qualitative disorder is the changed perception of taste stimuli or the perception of a taste, although there is no source of taste ( phantogeusia ). In parageusia , the taste perception changes or a strong aftertaste is perceived permanently, often bitter or metallic. Burning Mouth Syndrome (constant burning sensation in the mouth) is a special form . Quantitative disorders are a hypersensitivity to taste stimuli (Hypergeusie) , decreased sensation of taste receptors, or the complete loss of gustatory ( Ageusia ), sometimes only to certain flavor qualities.

In rare cases, a taste disorder is congenital, mostly it is a question of "taste blindness" for certain taste qualities. Damage to the taste buds can occur in various diseases, e.g. B. in diseases of the metabolism such as diabetes mellitus , liver and kidney diseases, inflammation of the tongue ( glossitis ), disorders of the hormonal balance , Sjogren's syndrome , hypothyroidism , Cushing's syndrome and due to damage to the cranial nerves that are involved in taste perception. In rare cases, traumatic brain injuries can lead to anosmia-ageusia syndrome , i.e. a complete loss of smell and taste. Epileptic seizures can also be preceded by taste hallucinations as aura .

A (temporary) impairment of taste can occur as a side effect of some medications, for example with chlorhexidine , penicillamine or cytostatics , and also as a temporary consequence of chemotherapy . A vitamin deficiency and a deficiency in certain trace elements (zinc, nickel, copper) can change the taste sensation, but also poor oral hygiene . For a short time, the sense of taste is disturbed if you "burn" your tongue. It has also been proven that regular smoking changes and affects taste perception.

Much more common than disorders of gustatory perception are taste disorders as a result of impaired olfactory perception. With a complete loss of smell perception ( anosmia ), a differentiated taste can no longer be perceived, which often leads to a loss of appetite for any food in those affected .

Older people are primarily affected by odor and taste disorders. It is estimated that around three to seven percent of the population in the western world suffer from olfactory disorders, but in the over 65 age group it is 60 to 75 percent. Smell disorders are also common as a result of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases . It is scientifically controversial whether those affected also have an impaired taste.

Studies have shown that the perception threshold for taste stimuli increases with age, and that the perception of sweet stimuli is least affected by this. For a long time it was assumed that the reduced number of taste buds on the tongue is responsible for the decline in taste with age; however, this assumption is now considered outdated. It is now assumed that the function of the receptors is reduced. Reduced salivation may also have a certain influence.

A common misconception is that a tongue piercing can affect the sense of taste. Most tongue piercings are stung in the center of the tongue, where there are very few to no taste buds. Only in very rare exceptional cases can the tongue piercing wearer's sense of taste be impaired.

Taste perception in animals

Cat at meat meal

The sense of taste in dogs and cats is based on a pattern typical of carnivores. An essential feature here is that it is largely insensitive to salty taste.

However, in dogs, monovalent cations (including Na + ) increase sensitivity to sugar. Most dog taste buds (known as Type A) react to amino acids, many of which (such as L-proline or L-cysteine ) are perceived as sweet by humans. These buds also respond to mono- and disaccharides . The type B buds respond to acidic compounds . The receptor type C responds to the umami taste. Finally, type D perceives “fruity-sweet” flavors in the human sense. It is unclear in what form the taste sensations are processed by the dog's brain and influence the animal's eating behavior, since the sense of smell obviously plays the main role in food selection.

Cats, like dogs, have amino acid-sensitive receptors. These are stimulated by some amino acids (e.g. L-lysine ), but inhibited by others - amino acids perceived as bitter by humans such as L-tryptophan - which leads to the corresponding feed component being rejected. A complete insensitivity to sweet taste due to a deletion in the Tas1r2 gene is unusual for mammals . Cats perceive acid in a similar way to dogs. Instead of the receptors available for the perception of the “fruity-sweet” taste in dogs, cats react with another type of receptor to bitter substances such as quinine , tannins and alkaloids .

The presence of four types of taste receptors has been described for cattle (for salty, sweet, sour and bitter), but their response threshold is estimated to be low, especially for bitter substances. Sweet food is not preferred. However, due to the low sodium content in plant-based food, they show a pronounced preference for salty food components.


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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 26, 2008 .