16 Feb The True Nature of Reality: The Spice of Life – 20

They say that variety is the spice of life, but when it comes to flavor, the human sense of taste has only five different sensations. How then do we sense so many different flavors when we eat? It was once believed that humans tasted different tastes with different parts of the tongue, but new research shows that each taste bud in our mouth has the capacity to perceive things that are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). The ability to distinguish these tastes helped us determine the safety and desirability of foods. For example, bitter tastes helped us identify foods that were poisonous or toxic, sweetness helped us identify foods rich in carbohydrates, and salty and savory foods helped us look for foods that were rich in protein and nutrition.

The sense of taste may be one of the oldest senses developed by living organisms and served to promote ingestion of the nutrition cells needed in order to survive and reproduce. It is believed that the sense of taste served two functions for early human beings, to promote survivability through consumption of food that would gives us the energy we need to survive and reproduce, and to promote social cohesiveness that enhanced our survivability rate by living in groups (safety in numbers), which in turn increased the likelihood of survival and reproduction.

Life requires a constant source of energy in order to survive. We refer to this source of energy as food, but have you ever wondered how we originally distinguished foods from non-foods? There is a reason that harmful substances, in general, taste horrible while more nutritious foods make our mouths water.

The sense of smell plays an enormous role in working together with the sense of taste. Smell enhances flavor and adds variety to the five basic functions of our taste buds. If you have ever had a bad cold or congestion, you may have noticed that losing your ability to use your nose also takes away your ability to taste food. During this time, however, you can still sense a cough drop is sweet or that medicine tastes bitter, although we are not able to enjoy the flavor of food. Smell helps make eating enjoyable and also serves to stimulate our appetite when we need more calories to burn.

The sense of smell serves as a way to help us “taste food at a distance”. Think of a time when you were hungry while fueling your car and you caught a strong whiff of gasoline. Did the smell of gas make you want to ingest it? More likely, it made you nauseous. Now, think of a time when you were hungry and you arrived outside a restaurant, or perhaps the kitchen of a home, filled with the smell of meats grilling, bread baking, and perhaps some cookies fresh out of the oven. How did that make you feel? The experience of delicious smells and satisfying flavors makes one want to eat, which is a key to our individual and social well-being.

How does the human sense of taste stack up against other species on the planet? We can get a sense of how much we are able to taste by the number of taste buds in our mouth. The more we have, the more we are able to taste.

Human beings, on average, have about 10,000 taste buds on our tongues. Dogs, also potential omnivores, have only 1700 taste buds, while carnivores, such as cats, have only 500 taste buds, with no capability of tasting sweet foods. Herbivores have humans beat, however, the pig having 14,000 tastes buds, and cows reaching up to 25,000. It is probable that meat eaters required less taste buds because they only had to identify meat, while plant eating animals had to distinguish between several types of vegetation to get the nutrition they need.

So, which creature on the planet has the most taste buds? The catfish has up to 250,000 taste buds, not just on its mouth and whiskers, but taste buds that cover the entire body of the fish. Because it lives in murky water with poor visibility, the catfish evolved as a type of “swimming tongue” that uses taste to find its food. As an example of capability, studies report that a catfish could locate a single drop of soda in an olympic sized swimming pool.

The sense of taste is the last of the five main mechanisms of sensory perception that helps us gather information from our environment. Each sense evolved with a particular function that increased the likelihood of survival, something at which human beings have performed extraordinarily. But, we have also examined the many setbacks and limitations of our five senses. On the one hand, we get much of the information we need to function on a basic level, but on the other hand, what we experience on a day to day basis is just a small sliver of the reality that is all around us, a reality that has a very real affect on us, regardless if we recognize it or not.


Do you consider yourself to have a good or poor sense of taste?
Do you enjoy foods that are more sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory?
Name three tastes you absolutely hate and describe them.
Name three tastes you love and describe them.
We developed an affinity towards sweet foods in hopes of providing carbohydrates to our body. How has the availability of food changed from one thousand years ago to now?
Given our availability of food in the modern world, how has taste moved from a sense that ensures survival to one that promotes overconsumption of unhealthy foods?
How would your life be different if, like the catfish, you could taste everything that touched your body?
Take some time to describe your next meal in detail, identifying flavors as sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or savory. How many different ingredients can you identify in your meal?
What would you choose for your last meal?
Do you try new foods on a regular basis? Why or why not?

Michael Ken