If you remember the science you learned in elementary school, you might recall that our tongue can perceive four distinct tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.
But you may have also learned that Pluto is a planet — and, well, we all know how that turned out. Scientists today are finding that the four-tastes representation of our tongue is not just oversimplified, but completely wrong.
In The New York Times’ Well blog, Peter Andrey Smith reviews the current science on taste, and it turns out our understanding of this crucial sense has exploded — in ways any chef or discerning eater may have predicted.
“Today, savory, also called umami, is widely recognised as a basic taste, the fifth,” Smith writes. “And now other candidates, perhaps as many as 10 or 20, are jockeying for entry into this exclusive club.”
One taste that may soon be accepted into this club: fattiness. Researchers are having trouble teasing apart whether we can truly taste fat or merely sense its texture. But our tongue seems so sensitive to its presence that the levels of fat in our blood rise even if we spit out the fat we put in our mouth before swallowing it.
What are some of the other leading contenders? “The growing list of putative tastes,” writes Smith, “now includes soapiness, lysine, electric, alkaline, hydroxide and metallic.”
Other candidate tastes scientists have raised previously are piquance (like hot peppers), coolness (like peppermint), and carbon dioxide.
For the record, the idea that you taste “sweet” on one part of your tongue and “bitter” on another is also a myth. You can respond to different flavours on any taste-sensing part of your tongue.
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