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Fact files

Nervous system - Taste

Function: To protect your body from unsafe foods

Taste buds: Most of your taste buds are on your tongue

Basic tastes: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami

Protecting your body

Your sense of taste protects you from unsafe foods. If you ate poisonous or rotten foods, you would probably spit them out immediately, because they usually taste revolting. That way, you stop them from entering your stomach.

Your sense of taste also helps you maintain a consistent chemical balance in your body. Liking sugar and salt for example, satisfies your body's need for carbohydrates and minerals. Similarly, eating sour foods such as oranges and lemons supplies your body with essential vitamins.

Taste buds

Your mouth contains around 10,000 taste buds, most of which are located on and around the tiny bumps on your tongue. Every taste bud detects five primary tastes:

  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Bitter
  • Salty
  • Umami - salts of certain acids (for example monosodium glutamate or MSG)

Each of your taste buds contains 50-100 specialised receptor cells. Sticking out of every single one of these receptor cells is a tiny taste hair that checks out the food chemicals in your saliva. When these taste hairs are stimulated, they send nerve impulses to your brain. Each taste hair responds best to one of the five basic tastes.

Tastes and flavours

For you to enjoy the full flavour of a sizzling Sunday roast or a rich chocolate mousse, you need more than your basic tastes. You also require your sense of smell. If you have a cold, the lining of your nose swells and you temporarily lose your sense of smell. Even though your tongue is still able to identify the basic tastes, the food you eat will taste bland.

Additionally, temperature and texture influence how much you appreciate foods. When you eat 'hot' foods like chilli peppers, you actually excite the pain receptors in your mouth.

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