Theory of five basic tastes ‘outdated’7th May, 2014 by Lucy Shaw
The idea that humans can only detect five basic tastes is “outdated” and needs to be revised, according to an Oxford University professor.
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.
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.