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?

    • Answer

      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?

    • Answer

      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?

    • Answer

      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.
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.

Noun

capacity to do work.

essential
Adjective

needed.

evolution
Noun

change in heritable traits of a population over time.

Noun

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

mammal
Noun

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

necessary
Adjective

required or needed.

Noun

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

palatable
Adjective

pleasant-tasting.

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.