Taste is one of the five senses. That much we all know. But how many of us truly understand how taste works? Probably not many. For instance, did you know that the sense of taste involves more than just the tongue? It also involves the olfactory system, saliva, and something known as ‘common chemical sense’.
The sense of taste is so complex that it can be altered by a lot of different things. Something as seemingly insignificant as the common cold can affect what food tastes like. That is why being sick often means you lose your appetite for certain kinds of foods. You might even lose your sense of taste altogether when you have a cold or the flu.
Taste and the Tongue
We typically associate taste with the tongue. This is obvious and natural. The tongue contains all the nerves that sends signals to the brain, signals that tell your brain what a food tastes like. Interestingly enough, nerves are scattered throughout the tongue in various locations.
It used to be thought that the tongue was divided into different segments with each segment responsible for recognizing one of the five types of tastes. But research has proven this to be false. There are actually only three specialized nerves related to taste. Those nerves, and all the others responsible for the sense of taste are found throughout the tongue.
In order for the nerves to be activated, the taste buds have to be activated as well. And for the taste buds to do what they do, you need saliva. When you put a piece of food in your mouth, saliva immediately begins to break it down. Meanwhile, it also stimulates the taste buds to recognize different molecules and activate the nerves that send taste messages to the brain.
Taste’s Link to Smell
So where does the olfactory system come into play? Believe it or not, your sense of taste is also linked to your sense of smell. The olfactory system is responsible for the latter sense. In short, odor molecules trigger olfactory nerves in the same way flavor molecules activate the nerves in the tongue. But here is the thing: the olfactory system is engaged before the tongue and mouth.
As you smell a given food, your olfactory nerves immediately start sending messages to your brain. Those messages tell your brain what the expected taste should be once you finally put the food in your mouth. Your sense of smell almost acts like a warm-up for the main attraction.
This explains why the sense of taste doesn’t work so well when you are congested. If you cannot smell your food, the brain doesn’t know what to expect when you actually put it in your mouth. The effect is so profound that you could eat some spicy Mexican candy from Chilito Loco and never know just how hot it is – because congestion is getting in the way.
The Common Chemical Sense
Finally, humans have what is known as the common chemical sense. This sense is actually a defense mechanism to protect against extreme temperatures. When it is engaged along with the sense of taste, it makes it possible for your brain to recognize things like hot chili powder and cool mint flavors.
Needless to say,the sense of taste is not strictly a function of the tongue. The tongue relies on the olfactory system, the common chemical sense, and the reaction between saliva and taste buds to function. If any of those things are slightly off, your sense of taste will be altered.