Moment for Health: A Salute to Tastebuds

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My friend’s face crunches into a grimace as he takes a bite of my Brussels sprouts. I don’t understand because I just adore that bitter sulphur taste and go through my cravings every year with them.

But I have to be more understanding of my friend’s repulsion of these vegetables because evolution bestowed our genes with what we like and don’t like in foods. Yet the tiny receptors that detect tastes start way back when survival and health were most important to early man.

Take for instance, bitter. There are certain sequences of genes that trigger the taste of bitter and can be inherited from one or both parents. Though we might have receptors (located on the very tips of the taste buds) for tasting bitter in the tongue, it takes certain genes to tell our minds the degrees of bitter, or if bitter is tasted at all. Way back when man evolved, tasting bitter kept the poisonous plants off their menu and has passed on through the ages.

Smell and sight are also necessary to complete the tasting experience, but it is the little buds on the tongue that initially deliver the signal to the brain what chemical we taste as we eat.

You can count five basic ones: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory taste found in items such as meat, cheese and even tomatoes).

Each taste sensation has a corresponding receptor on the taste bud that creates flavors we love, hate or for some people, can’t really taste.

Look in the mirror and say AHHHH, and the pink bumps located on the front, back and sides of the tongue are the points of taste sensation.

In fact, every animal with a backbone (except for the woeful hagfish) sports a tongue with taste buds that cater to different tastes.

For instance, birds with their savory taste buds have lost the ability to taste sugars, but nectar-feeding hummingbirds re-evolved them by repurposing the receptors used to taste savory food into sweet tasting ones.

Evolution has it that certain tastes are supposed to entice us to eat what the body needs. This could be a bit illogical when it comes to sugar, but sensing sweet tastes is actually essential to us. The sugar molecule is a component of carbohydrates, a necessary fuel for our body. Modern living has allowed much-too-easy access to simple carbohydrates as humanity munches down foods filled with refined grains and sugar.

It is whole grains and vegetables that need to rev our internal engines, but life has brought us chocolate lava cake and doughnuts, leading the taste buds into mass betrayal.

Same goes for proteins. Savory chemicals are detected in the taste buds, to tell the brain that yes, this contains protein, so eat it to build a strong body. And sour items make the mouth pucker in defiance to acidity since too much is not good for the body.

Salty sensations in the taste buds bring both humans and animals to seek out salt since this mineral is not stored in our body. It is a necessary component for an array of metabolic functions within our body. Unfortunately many packaged foods contain large amounts of salt, and much more is usually consumed than necessary.

Our taste buds, as wonderful they may be, probably are still evolving as we indulge in the incredible taste sensations that pour out at us whenever we sit down to eat.

And in a thousand years, who knows how many tastes we might be sporting on our tongue as we use creativity in preparing our foods, and genes turn on and off with each bite we take.


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