Where Did the 5 Basic Tastes Come From?
You’re probably familiar with 4 of the 5 basic tastes. These are sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. But did you know that there’s actually a 5th basic taste called umami? This basic taste has been around for thousands of years in various cultures, but it was only in the last few decades that it came to be acknowledged in the west. In this week’s blog, we’ll talk about the 5 basic tastes and how they came to be.
The 5 Basic Tastes
Why do we have different tastes?
The sense of taste was an evolutionary development that functioned as a survival trait. Animals with taste could taste if another animal was rotten, or poisonous, for example, which allowed them to be more selective in what they ate and decrease their chances of eating something that would kill them. Good tastes signaled the presence of nutrients in the food that animals needed.
How does taste work?
Your taste buds have receptors on them that are triggered by certain molecules in the food and drink you consume. These receptors send a message to your brain that, when combined with other sensory information such as smell, tell you what the food tastes like.
A sweet taste tells the brain that food contains sugars. Your brain knows you need sugar for energy, among other things, which is why humans are particularly fond of this taste.
Salt plays a major role in countless bodily functions, such as regulating the water content of your body. Your brain knows that too little/too much salt is a bad thing, so your perception of saltiness is informed by how much salt your brain knows you need. So when something tastes too salty, your brain is telling you that you don’t need that much salt in your body.
Bitterness was originally intended to signal the presence of toxins. In many cases, bitterness also signals the presence of antioxidants. Coffee, for example, is loaded with antioxidants.
Sourness is caused by the presence of acids in foods. The origins of the sour taste are less clear than the previous 3, but it’s thought that sourness was originally meant to tell your brain that the food was decomposing, and thus unsafe to eat.
Umami is a Japanese word that is translated as “pleasant savory taste.” In terms of the other 4 basic tastes, umami tastes most similar to saltiness, but because it is perceived by different receptors on your taste buds, it is considered a separate taste. Umami tells your brain there is protein in food. Proteins contain amino acids that are essential for life, so your brain knows that umami is good.
Umami has been a huge part of Asian cuisine for thousands of years, but western cultures had relatively few foods that gave them a taste of umami, which is why umami was only recently recognized as a 5th basic taste in western culture.
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