Theory of five basic tastes ‘outdated’

7th May, 2014 by Lucy Shaw

The idea that humans can only detect five basic tastes is “outdated” and needs to be revised, according to an Oxford University professor.

Credit: Anttoeknee via Creative Commons

Credit: Anttoeknee via Creative Commons

Speaking to the drinks business, Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, said: “We only talk about five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and recently umami.

“Scientists have discovered there are as many as 20 different tastes, including fat, metallic, calcium, astringency and hotness.

“We all live in different taste worlds and ‘super tasters’ can have up to 16 times the amount of taste buds on their tongue as ordinary tasters.

“This means they often have an aversion to bitterness due to their sensitivity to the taste, so will dislike things like grapefruit, Campari, coffee, Brussels sprouts and tannins in red wine,” Spence added.

Spence is working with Ferran Adrià on improving hospital food

Spence is working with Ferran Adrià on improving hospital food

The professor has worked on taste experiments with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen for the last 12 years and is currently involved in a project with Ferran Adrià at the El Bulli research institute near Barcelona.

“Both of them approach dining as a complete experience that takes colour, sound and environment into account. I’m hoping they will inspire others to do the same and the trend will move from fine dining restaurants to more mainstream venues.

“Many top chefs haven’t considered the importance of environment until relatively recently. British and Spanish chefs are the most open minded and forward thinking, while the French have been the hardest to convince,” Spence said.

He is working with a number of chefs on the impact a restaurant atmosphere has on the overall dining experience, with lighting, music and the colour and texture of place settings all having an individual impact on taste perception.

“Humans are influenced by what they see, though super tasters are less influenced by their environment than ordinary tasters. We’re primed to think of red foods as sweeter and riper and green foods as more sour and under-ripe as fruits turn from green to red as they ripen.

“In one hundredth of a second, we’ve already made decisions about how something will taste depending on how it looks,” Spence told db.

“We’re programmed to reject bitterness because many bitter foods are poisonous, so it’s dangerous for our survival to eat them. Conversely, mother’s milk is sweet, so we come into the world with a liking for sweet flavours,” he added.

Spence is currently working with Ferran Adrià to try and improve hospital food and the taste experience for patients.

One Response to “Theory of five basic tastes ‘outdated’”

  1. Margaret Swaine says:

    The cliche that we are destined to like sweet and hate bitter is just not true. I (and I’m not the only one) was born hating sweet and loving salty and bitter. It’s not that I don’t taste bitter – I taste it profoundly – but much like those who love spicy hot foods, I like the thrill of a bitter hit on the palate. As a child I always passed on desserts and went for olives, pickles, salt & vinegar chips etc. I have been tested & confirmed as a super taster. And like many of my fellow super tasters I like bitters (amaro), fernet branca, rapini, arugula, herbs, raw rhubarb, quinine, and just about anything but sweet things. Sweet to me is cloying and overpowers the brightness and sharpness of taste with a cloak of sugar. Makes me gag. All to say time to drop the “we were programmed to love sweet”. Let’s see some new tests on this subject too.

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