Not surprisingly, the vast majority of consumers believe taste is an important factor when purchasing food. Without our sense of taste, we would not only be missing out on the joys of a juicy hamburger or a gooey brownie, but our bodies would also fail to properly respond to incoming food.
A number of components combine to create the “gestalt” experience of taste. Our taste buds are able to perceive five basic taste qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. In addition to the basic tastes, a number of other sensory attributes contribute to the overall taste experience. These attributes include the aroma, texture, appearance, and flavor of food or drink.
Humans’ sense of taste serves a number of important biological functions, including preparing the body for digestion, reacting to potential toxins, and reinforcing an affinity for nutrients. Tasting sweet foods, for instance, triggers secretion of insulin which steadies blood glucose levels. Moreover, highly bitter foods, which are more likely to contain toxins, cause rejection-oriented reactions from the body such as abnormal churning of the stomach and feelings of nausea. These adverse reactions may prepare the body to vomit and/or teach the eater to not again eat the toxic substance. Interestingly, during pregnancy, women tend to be more sensitive to bitter foods which may help protect the fetus during such a developmentally sensitive stage.
Our sense of taste also reinforces our consumption of nutrients. For instance, our affinity for sour may be tied to our need for vitamin C, and our love of sweet may be an outcome of our early ancestors’ high fruit diet. Our preference for umami, a taste prominent in slightly aged or cooked meats, may have developed from said foods’ more easily digestible protein. Our appreciation of moderate saltiness may reflect our need to regularly replenish our salt levels.
So, why does taste matter? In addition to adding simple pleasures to every day, our sense of taste helps us prepare for digestion, appropriately react to toxins, and keep coming back to nutrient-rich foods.