From delicious to death: Understanding taste

February 26, 2008

PHILADELPHIA (February 25, 2008) -- Despite the significance of taste to both human gratification and survival, a basic understanding of this primal sense is still unfolding.

Taste provides both pleasure and protection. Often taken for granted, the sense of taste evaluates everything humans put into their mouths. Taste mediates recognition of a substance and the final decision process before it is either swallowed and taken into the body, or rejected as inappropriate.

A new primer written by scientists at the Monell Center and Florida State University and published in the February 26 issue of Current Biology, provides a clear and accessible overview of recent advances in understanding human taste perception and its underlying biology.

Within the past few years, identification of receptors for sweet, bitter and umami (savory) taste has led to new insights regarding how taste functions, but many questions remain to be answered. The Current Biology primer reviews the current state of knowledge regarding how taste stimuli are detected and ultimately translated by the nervous system into the perceptual experiences of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

Such perceptual evaluations are related to the function and ultimately, the consequences, of taste evaluation. These can range from pleasurable emotional reactions, for example the delight a child receives from a sweet candy, to the critical life-dependent response that causes a person to spit out a bitter potential toxin.

Author Paul A.S. Breslin, PhD, a sensory scientist at the Monell Center, observes, "For all mammals, the collective influence of taste over a lifetime has a huge impact on pleasure, health, well being, and disease. Taste's importance to our daily lives is self-evident in its metaphors - for example: the 'sweetness' of welcoming a newborn child, the 'bitterness' of defeat, the 'souring' of a relationship, and describing a truly good human as the 'salt' of the earth."
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Coauthor of the review is Alan C. Spector, PhD, Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at Florida State University.

The primer can be accessed at: http://www.current-biology.com/content/article/fulltext?uid=PIIS0960982207023706

The Monell Chemical Senses Center is a nonprofit basic research institute based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For 40 years, Monell has been the nation's leading research center focused on understanding the senses of smell, taste and chemical irritation: how they function and affect lives from before birth through old age. Using a multidisciplinary approach, scientists collaborate in the areas of: sensation and perception, neuroscience and molecular biology, environmental and occupational health, nutrition and appetite, health and well being, and chemical ecology and communication. For more information about Monell, visit www.monell.org.

Monell Chemical Senses Center

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