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  • Human beings can distinguish about five major tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami
    These tastes are just the beginning, however. Each sensation tells an important story in human evolution. Of course, each taste has both healthy and unhealthy foods associated with it!
    A sweet taste can signal the presence of sugars and other carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential for providing and storing energy.
    Salty foods usually signal the presence of sodium. Sodium is an element necessary for maintaining our bodies’ water balance and circulating the flow of blood and nutrients.
    Bitter tastes can signal the presence of toxins, many of which are unpalatable
    A sour taste can signal the presence of acids. Acids may indicate that food is spoiled and no longer healthy.
    Umami is a savory or “meaty” taste. Umami can signal the presence of proteins, which perform an array of important cellular functions in our bodies.
    Use our video, part of the National Geographic Channel series “Eat: The Story of Food,” and read through our questions to think about your own tastes. 
    Then, think about what an animal tastes! Although all mammals have a sense of taste, the flavors they detect can vary widely. As Michael Pollan, an author in the video, says: “If you’re a koala, you eat eucalyptus. If it’s not eucalyptus, it’s not food!” Read our Fast Facts to learn more about what animals taste.
    1. What are some foods associated with each major taste: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami?

      sweet: candy, fresh fruits such as strawberries and peaches

      salty: salt, soy sauce

      bitter: coffee, unsweetened chocolate

      sour: lemon, vinegar

      umami: meat, tomatoes, spinach

    2. Taste is just one aspect of a food’s flavor. What other sensory aspects contribute to flavor?

      smell: What does it smell like?

      texture: Is it liquid? mushy? hard?

      temperature: Is it hot? room-temperature? cold? freezing?

      sensation: Is it “hot” (like chili peppers)? Is it “cool” (like mint)?

    3. Your tongue is just one place where taste receptors are located. Where else can you find them?

      The roof, sides, and back of your mouth are covered with taste receptors. Your throat  also has taste receptors. Even your lungs have taste receptors!

  • Animals have taste!
    • Rodents, such as mice, can taste a flavor humans cannot: starch. Starch is a type of carbohydrate found in foods such as rice, potatoes, and corn.
    • Many carnivores, from cats to sea lions, have lost their “sweet tooth”—they cannot distinguish sweet tastes.
    • Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals have a very reduced ability to recognize any taste except salt!
    • Cats and dogs can “taste” water with much more sensitivity than humans.
    • Pandas and koalas, whose diets are very restricted to certain plants, cannot recognize umami—“meaty”—tastes.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    acid Noun

    chemical compound that reacts with a base to form a salt. Acids can corrode some natural materials. Acids have pH levels lower than 7.

    array Noun

    large group.

    blood Noun

    fluid pumped by the heart through arteries and veins, delivering nutrients to tissues. In humans, blood consists of plasma in which red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are suspended.

    carbohydrate Noun

    type of sugar that is an important nutrient for most organisms.

    cell Noun

    smallest working part of a living organism.

    circulate Verb

    to move around, often in a pattern.

    detect Verb

    to notice.

    distinguish Verb

    to separate or mark as different.

    element Noun

    chemical that cannot be separated into simpler substances.

    energy Noun

    capacity to do work.

    essential Adjective


    evolution Noun

    change in heritable traits of a population over time.

    food Noun

    material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food
    mammal Noun

    animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

    necessary Adjective

    required or needed.

    nutrient Noun

    substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

    Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient
    palatable Adjective


    protein Noun

    one of many complex compounds, made of chains of amino acids, that make up the majority of all cellular structures and are necessary for biological processes.

    sensation Noun

    perception or awareness of stimuli through the senses.

    spoil Verb

    to rot or ruin.

    sugar Noun

    type of chemical compound that is sweet-tasting and in some form essential to life.

    toxin Noun

    poisonous substance, usually one produced by a living organism.

    umami Noun

    strong "meaty" taste.

    vary Verb

    to change.