Exploring flavour
tiny world of cooking

Exploring flavour

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami?

The flavour of food is what turns eating into an experience. For the most part we have our tongue to thank for this, however we also "taste" food with our nose and eyes.

What are the different flavours?

There is so much delicious food out there – and it all tastes very different. For instance, you can't compare chocolate with pasta in a creamy sauce, or apple cake with a ham roll. The enjoyment comes from tasting food with all of our senses. There are only five real flavours that we experience predominantly through our tongue, and they are sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.  

Sweet can come in the form of ripe fruit such as berries or bananas, for example. Even as babies, our bodies are programmed to like sweet flavours. This was an important survival strategy for our ancestors. Sweet food tends to be high in carbohydrates, which supply the body with essential energy. This energy can then be drawn on in times of famine.

Salty comes in the form of boiled and salted potatoes, fish, seaweed and other seafood, for example. Our bodies need salt – but not too much of it. That's why it's important not to add too much salt when seasoning food.

When we think of sour, food such as lemons and other citrus fruits like grapefruit and limes no doubt come to mind. Lots of people like a little bit of sour, but not when sour is the overwhelming flavour. This could be because our bodies are programmed to associate sour flavours with unripe or even poisonous plants. 

We tend to experience a bitter flavour from food such as chicory, rocket and other types of salad. Coffee and green tea are bitter, too. Bitter tends to provoke a similar response to sour in that if something tastes bitter, it's often not all that popular. Science suggests that our bodies associate very bitter food with poisonous or spoilt food, and the response is therefore to reject it.

Umami is a relatively recent scientific discovery. It comes from the Japanese word for "delicious" and describes the kind of spicy, savoury flavour that we find predominantly in protein-rich foods such as meat and cheese.

Where does flavour come from?

Whether its sweet strawberries, salty crisps, sour gherkins or a bitter herbal tea, we can taste everything we put in our mouths. This is because chemicals in the food are dissolved by saliva when we chew. They are then absorbed by the taste buds. These are predominantly located on the tongue but can also be found in other parts of the mouth, and each person has thousands of them. Your taste buds recognize which of the five flavours you are currently experiencing and transmit this information to your brain.

Once it reaches the brain, the impression created by the taste buds is then complemented by the smell, appearance and texture of the food. The result is what we call flavour. An example: When you pop a ripe strawberry in your mouth, your brain combines the strawberry's sweet flavour with its delicious smell and wonderfully soft texture. You will have also noticed its deep red colour and stored this information. The taste, smell, feel and look come together, allowing us to experience the strawberry as a delicious whole.

Anyone who's ever had a cold and a bunged-up nose will know how important the sense of smell is for flavour. Nothing tastes like it should – that's if you can taste anything at all. Spicy food is another example of how important the other senses are for flavour. Spicy is not a flavour as it is not picked up by the taste buds. The brain gets the information about how spicy a food is from the nerve cells, which are there to register pain. 

Can taste be disputed?

One person may like sweet ice cream, while another likes bitter green tea with sour lemon. We all like different things, and this changes as we get older. For example, adults don't have as many taste buds as children and so their perception of taste is different and slightly more restricted. This is perhaps why adults enjoy the taste of bitter coffee? Science also suggests that we like to eat things that we have tried many times before. In other words, we like the taste of familiar food. During the course of our lives, we taste all kinds of different things. It sometimes takes our bodies numerous attempts to acquire a certain taste. As a result, it's possible not to like fish as a child but to love it as an adult.

Taste can't be disputed, therefore, but it can always be explored afresh. How does the taste of cooked spinach compare to raw spinach? Is rhubarb bitter or sour? Do all varieties of pear taste the same? What happens when you put sweet berries in your mouth at the same time as something salty? There's lots to explore in the world of flavour.

FOOBY tip: Tasting with all the senses

We all know you're not meant to play with your food. Fair enough, however you can carry out research – especially when it comes to flavour. What does this taste like when I eat it with my eyes closed? And when I hold my nose while chewing? Does this piece of bread feel different in my mouth than it does in my hand? Try doing a little research into some well-known foods with and without certain senses. Afterwards, you'll perceive them in a whole new way.


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