How does your sense of taste work?
Your ability to taste comes from tiny molecules released when you chew, drink, or digest food; these molecules stimulate special sensory cells in the mouth and throat. These taste cells, or gustatory cells, are clustered within the taste buds of the tongue and roof of the mouth, and along the lining of the throat. Many of the small bumps on the tip of your tongue contain taste buds. At birth, you have about 10,000 taste buds, but after age 50, you may start to lose them.
When the taste cells are stimulated, they send messages through three specialized taste nerves to the brain, where specific tastes are identified. Taste cells have receptors that respond to one of at least five basic taste qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami [oo-MOM-ee]. Umami, or savory, is the taste you get from glutamate, which is found in chicken broth, meat extracts, and some cheeses. A common misconception is that taste cells that respond to different tastes are found in separate regions of the tongue. In humans, the different types of taste cells are scattered throughout the tongue.
Taste quality is just one way that you experience a certain food. Another chemosensory mechanism, called the common chemical sense, involves thousands of nerve endings, especially on the moist surfaces of the eyes, nose, mouth, and throat. These nerve endings give rise to sensations such as the coolness of mint and the burning or irritation of chili peppers. Other specialized nerves create the sensations of heat, cold, and texture. When you eat, the sensations from the five taste qualities, together with the sensations from the common chemical sense and the sensations of heat, cold, and texture, combine with a food's aroma to produce a perception of flavor. It is flavor that lets you know whether you are eating a pear or an apple.
Most people who think they have a taste disorder actually have a problem with smell. When you chew food, aromas are released that activate your sense of smell by way of a special channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. If this channel is blocked, such as when your nose is stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors can't reach sensory cells in the nose that are stimulated by smells. As a result, you lose much of our enjoyment of flavor. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have little or no flavor.