Most of us would say that we have a pretty good handle on how taste works. Our tongues take care of that whole thing, right? We’ve known that for centuries upon centuries now, after all. Also, we’ve had the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty figured out for quite some time.
How does our tongue function?
Over time, our knowledge has only been confirmed as we figured out what taste buds are and what they do. Even with a few missteps (such as when scientists believed that different areas of the tongue specialized in different flavors), we’ve done a pretty good job of figuring out what taste is, why it happens, and everything else regarding why food is fun to eat, right?
Not really. It turns out that our tongues are much more complicated than we thought, with five different types of receptors scattered around, rather than the four we previously had identified. Also, we have figured out that our senses of smell contribute even more to what we perceive as taste than our tongues do.
Calories keep us alive
A lot of this is common knowledge, but what isn’t common knowledge is that much of our enjoyment from our favorite foods actually comes after we’ve done the work of eating them. That seems unlikely, but bear with us. See, experiments have shown that even when mice have not been able to taste the difference between sugar water and normal water, they show a preference to the sugar water. This is because even when the taste is the same, the mice prefer the water with more calories.
This throws a monkey wrench into the whole taste thing, but also a much bigger monkey wrench into the idea of dieting. How many of us have told ourselves that if there could magically be healthier, less fattening versions of our favorite foods, we’d be in paradise? It turns out that this is not completely true either, since we are naturally drawn to foods with greater amounts of calories. If two foods tasted the same, we would be drawn to the food with more calories, which would likely be the less healthy version.
It all makes a lot of sense when you think about it—after all, calories give us energy and keep us alive, so our bodies naturally want calories. However, this knowledge also makes it clear why dieting can be so difficult, since our bodies are often craving more calories even as we fight against that craving.
Why do we like the taste of proteins?
What does this have to do with protein? Well, the fifth taste that our receptors are sensitive to alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty is called “umami”. Umami is an amino acid glutamate, which means it is found in protein. Similar studies to those that we discussed earlier were done which showed that mice also showed a fondness for water that contained MSG (which contains umami). The mice can’t taste or receive the umami in the way that we can, but their intestines can detect it. So before long, they began to prefer the MSG water to the regular water.
Again, it all goes back to our bodies naturally craving what they need. It all makes a lot of sense when you think about it, because our bodies require protein for everything from muscle growth and performance to boosting our immune systems. Even when we are babies, we crave umami, as breast milk has ten times more glutamate than regular milk that comes from cows does. This is also a reason that a vegan lifestyle can require such an adjustment: umami, after all, is not present in most vegan foods. Even though products such as tofu meats may be just as filling as regular meats and may taste similar, the lack of umami leaves our bodies naturally unsatisfied.
This is a bit troublesome, of course. It is one thing to convince your taste buds that you like a new food; people even talk of “re-training” their taste buds to appreciate healthy foods. Teaching your intestines to accept a lack of umami, however, is a much more difficult task. In the meantime though, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a lot more to our daily cravings for certain foods than just the taste that comes with them.
|The information presented is not intended to, and does not in anyway, constitute or replace a medical advice, and it should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem. The information is provided for educational purposes only, and is based upon the authors’ personal experiences or point of view. If you think you have a health problem, please consult a qualified medical professional..|