Why Your Favorite Foods Taste So Good
How do we decide what we like to eat? And why, in my case, does it feel like heaven is in my mouth?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve experienced the world primarily through my mouth. When I was young, I used to scramble up to the kitchen counter to consume slice after slice of warm, homemade bread slathered in salty butter. My first bite into a gingersnap was a revelation, the crisp shell giving way to the chewy, aromatic center by the simple movement of tongue and jaw. My sense of taste felt extrasensory–a superpower meant for more than mere sustenance. Reeling in bliss, I felt perversely grateful that something–one thing–could give me so much pleasure.
Not everyone has the same experience. Our sense of taste is complex. But whether you’re the average person with 4000 taste buds or a super taster with nearly 10,000, it all starts with chemical reactions.
We sense the five basic tastes–sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami-through chemoreceptors in our tastebuds. Tastebuds are located primarily on our tongue, but they are also sprinkled all over our mouth, digestive system, and even testes, although those taste receptors aren’t connected to your brain.
Each chemoreceptor has its own unique sensitivity, making some able to taste more salty than sweet and others, more sour than bitter. Some sense combinations of tastes, like whatever Sour Patch kids are. But basic taste is just the foundation.
There is also the way food feels in our mouths. Temperature matters (consider cold pizza or hot ice cream.) As does texture. (Crunchy tastes different than chewy. Just ask bacon. And potato chips.) We have receptors for these other sensations all over our mouths as well.
The five tastes with differing intensity levels combined with all the other sensations provide us with endless combinations.
But wait. There’s more.
Taste is really a combination of nearly all our senses. Our nose adds flavor by way of smell, and flavor is, arguably, the most important part. When you chew, aroma molecules go up your nose through the back of your throat where they activate odor receptors. There are almost 400 kinds of those, helping us distinguish Morbier from Comte and Merlot from a good Pinot Noir. Our eyes and ears play a part too, by sensing how food looks and the way it sounds when we chew. Imagine eating yellow blueberries or quiet Rice Crispies. Neither can I.
All this talk of stimulating receptors may sound super complicated and sciencey, but the real question is this: How do we decide what we like to eat? And why, in my case, does it feel like heaven is in my mouth?