“Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” Ps. 34:8
Have you ever wondered why we are able to taste things? Most reasoning goes that taste helped humans test food to determine if it was poisonous or inedible. Bitter or sour tastes indicated something potentially bad to eat. Sweet and salty tastes were signs of food rich in nutrients which would be good things to eat.
Yet scientists are discovering that our sense of taste is way more complicated than the 5 basic senses of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory. First, our taste buds are complex organs with numerous sensory cells. These cells are connected to many different nerve fibers. When a chemical substance (food) enters the mouth, it comes in contact with the taste bud nerve cells and activates the cells that are wired to receive that specific chemical. The nerve cells then pass that information on to the brain so we can process and identify a specific flavor.
But there is more to the story.
Sugars, minerals, proteins, salts, and acids in foods are some of the trigger chemicals to get those taste buds firing! But most foods are made up of a combination of different tastes. Therefore, a specific flavor we might identify is really a combination of different sensations. And those sensations go beyond the tongue. They involve a whole symphony of senses, including smell, texture, and even temperature!
For example, things you might consider hot or spicy are not even direct taste sensations. They technically are pain signals sent by the touch and temperature-sensing nerves. So when you eat a super spicy taco, the nerves in your mouth are telling your brain you are in pain. If you LIKE spicy foods, your brain interprets that pain as enjoyable and fun! It’s kind of like the muscle pain we feel as we play a sport or work out.
Humans have a virtually limitless flavor palette. Half of your sensory cells and nerve fibers are specialized to react to only one taste, and they let the brain know the intensity of that taste. So far, scientists have been able to determine the brain can identify about 10 levels of intensity. That’s how you can identify whether something is a little salty or extremely salty!
The other half of your taste sensory cells are able to react to several of those 5 basic tastes, each having varying levels of sensitivity to the basic flavors. So a particular cell might be most sensitive to sweet, then sour, then salty and bitter, while another cell might be most sensitive to salty, then bitter, and so on.
You identify a complete flavor experience once all the sensory cell profiles from different parts of the tongue and mouth have been stimulated, sending their messages to the brain which combines the information and processes it.
So assuming the 5 basic tastes, 10 levels of intensity, and a huge number of taste-combination cells, there can be up to 100,000 different flavors that our brain can identify. Combine that with the senses of touch, temperature, and smell, and the numbers of flavors increase exponentially!
That goes well beyond the requirement for identifying if something is poisonous or good to eat. Why do we need to have such a rainbow of flavor combinations?
Well, tastes are very often associated with emotions. Think about the phrases “a bitter pill to take,” “sour grapes,” or “sweet nothings.” They all help us to express emotions of joy, pleasure, or sadness.
Science is finally helping us to see how our ability to taste works so we can better understand that connection, but the Psalmist who wrote the verse below already understood that:
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” Ps. 119:103
Indeed, as we learn more about ourselves and the world around us, we get a clearer picture of how God created us. He gave us a vast organ system to be able to identify the myriad of flavors in the world, not only for us to know what is safe to eat, but also for us to be able to better express ourselves and communicate to each other how we feel.