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How Taste Buds Work

By Tyler Woodward

Located on your tongue are approximately 10,000 chemical receptors which allow you to taste. These chemical receptors interact with the food you eat, transmitting a message instantaneously through your nervous system, allowing you to differentiate between the 5 types of taste:

  1. Sweet 
  2. Sour 
  3. Bitter
  4. Salty 
  5. Umami

Content:

General Structure And Function Of The Taste Buds:

General Structure And Function Of The Taste Buds

The surface of the tongue is covered in what is known as papillae, a small protuberance that sticks out on top of the tongue. On the tongue there are three types of papillae:

  1. Filiform (Cone-like) - 
  2. Fungiform (Mushroom-shaped) - 
  3. Circumvallate (Circular) - 

The majority of the papillae on the tongue are made up of the last two types each of which are surrounded by taste buds. 

Taste buds are made up of between 40-100 epithelial or skin cells which together with papillae line the surface of the tongue. Between the epithelial cells and the papillae are pores which are where our gustatory or taste cells lie.  These gustatory cells have hairlike molecules known as microvilli and are what actually sense the taste of food. The microvilli transmit these signals through the gustatory cells and the supporting cells that surround them into nerve fibers. From here the nerves bring this information into the thalamus which then transmits this to the gustatory cortex of the brain that identifies and categorizes these signals, allowing us to recognize the food we eat.

Humans are capable of differentiating between five different types of taste, each of which was likely essential to human evolution and survival.

  1. Salty - Allowing us to taste for sodium and likely other minerals which serve as, necessary electrolytes
  2. Sugar - Allowing us to taste sugar, the body’s primary source of energy.
  3. Bitter - Allowing us to taste for poisons
  4. Sour - Allowing us to detect unripe or spoiled foods
  5. Umami - Allowing us to taste certain essential proteins and amino acids

These various senses of taste likely each utilize different types of cells to be able to process and recognize these various tastes. For this reason it appears that the tongue is organized with certain regions that each specialize for one of the 5 tastes.

Read More: How Humans Speak

Common Challenges With Taste:

Common Challenges With Taste

Taste buds, similar to skin cells, are rapidly regenerating cells that only have a lifespan of about 10 days. Over time, the ability of taste buds to regenerate seems to decline as the amount of taste buds in older adults can decline to as low as 5,000 taste buds which is likely a natural byproduct of aging. Additionally, because about 80% of our ability to taste is derived from our ability to smell, the loss of smell can have a significant impact on our ability to taste.

Read More: Structure And Function Of The Eyeball

How To Combat Loss Of Taste:

How To Combat Loss Of Taste

 

Being that no one is entirely sure what causes the loss of taste or smell over time, no is sure of how of  to prevent losing your sense of taste over time. But basing off how the body and brain tend to function we can make a few educated guesses;

  1. First, make sure to consume a nutrient rich diet. Over time due to modern diets being relatively nutrient poor and energy dense we tend to accumulate nutrient deficiencies which can hinder our body’s ability to function properly including taste and smell.
  2. Never stop tasting (and smelling)! - By continuing to go out and taste and smell various foods, smells, textures, ect, you will continue to stimulate your taste buds and nervous system which will likely improve your ability to taste and smell and help to preserve it over time.

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