Taste Buds 101

Today we’re talking taste buds! Learn all about your taste receptors, how they get out of whack and how to reign them in to work to your advantage.

Did you know that there are at least 6 tastes that can be detected by designated receptors in the tongue? They guide us to eating certain foods (this can be a good or bad thing) and can even warn us not to eat something “off” or poisonous.

These taste (a.k.a. gustatory) receptors lie within the taste buds which, contrary to popular belief, are not the visible bumps (papillae) on the tongue. Rather the taste buds are tiny structures found around the papillae.

These six unique tastes include:

  • Sweet: fruit, desserts and other carbohydrate-rich foods
  • Salty: sodium chloride
  • Sour: lemon, tart cherries
  • Bitter: dark leafy greens, grapefruit, eggplant, swedish bitters (an herbal tonic)
  • Umami: savory foods such as meats, bone broth, tomatoes, seaweed, and one to avoid – MSG
  • Fat: This is the most recently discovered taste that scientists claim humans can uniquely distinguish.

You’ll notice that spicy isn’t on the list – the tongue detects spice as pain so it is technically not a taste!

Taste Receptors in the Sinus Passages?

Bitter gustatory receptors also line the sinus passages! It is speculated that these receptors react to bitter compounds released by bacteria, triggering an immune response to fight off invaders1. A Penn Medicine study suggests that the more sensitive someone is to detecting the bitter taste, the more efficient they may be at fighting off sinus infections.2

Are you a supertaster, a regular taster or a nontaster?

Fifty percent of the population are regular tasters – they fall in the middle when it comes to acuity of the taste receptors. The remaining 50% are equally divided – 25% supertasters and 25% nontasters.

For supertasters, all flavors are amplified – a juicy grape tastes sweeter, swiss chard more bitter and lemonade more tart. Supertasters tend to be pickier with their food choices (although sometimes it has the opposite effect.) This can be overcome through dietary habits.

Nontasters tend to be less choosy with their foods since they taste them less intensely. Since their taste buds don’t send off strong warning signals, they may have a more difficult time distinguishing when a food is spoiled or otherwise harmful.

What can alter your sense of taste?

Many conditions can, directly or indirectly, alter your sense of taste. This can result in cravings, loss of appetite, poor food choices and can even lead to or aggravate health conditions.

  • Pregnancy
  • Smoking
  • Vitamin deficiencies including folate, B12, Thiamin and Zinc.4
  • Medications and radiation
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Diabetes (If dry-mouth is a problem, the lack of saliva affects how the taste buds receive flavor molecules.)
  • An unbalanced diet – All 6 tastes should be present and in balance.
  • Depression, anxiety and fatigue. These disorders of mood and energy can make people the quick-fix and boost of seratonin that refined carbs offer. This creates a cycle of cravings, digestive imbalance and a worsening of the condition.

10 Ways to Rebalance Your Taste Buds (and restore your digestive health in the process)

Taste buds need exercise, otherwise they will just go with the flow. If your flow is pastries and pasta, we have a problem! There are a number of simple steps you can take toward rebalancing your taste buds and, in the process, your digestive health and overall well-being.

    1. Branch out from sweet, salty and sour. These tastes are ever-present in a processed diet. Bitter is often absent and umami is usually unhealthy (MSG) so focus on good sources of these two tastes (some listed above).

    1. Cut down on sugar (including honey, maple syrup and all natural sweeteners).

    1. Seek complexity in your meals. Here are some ideas. 
      • Peppery arugula tossed in olive oil, a splash of lemon and sea salt.
      • Chicken and veggies stir-fried in a naturally-umami miso sauce.
      • The child-friendly green juice at the bottom of my recent Enterovirus post.

    1. Start small. Do you have a child who won’t touch a vegetable? Slip a romaine leaf into a smoothie or a bit of pureed winter squash (such as butternut) into some mac & cheese. Research shows that repeated exposure to small amounts of a new taste will acclimate the palate to new foods. This works for adults as well!

    1. Keep trying. You’re taste buds may need time to readjust to certain foods. Think of this as exercise. For instance, many people don’t find the bitter taste appealing. This is a shame since so many healthy foods have a bitter component to their overall flavor. Incorporate bitter greens milder greens in a salad. Toss grapefruit with sweeter fruits and a touch of raw honey. Slowly and steadily, your palate will come around.

    1. Plan your meals.

    1. When dealing with cravings, replace the bad with good. Craving cake? Eat a satisfying bowl of soup instead. Want a soda? Have a small glass of kombucha or a tall glass of sparkling lemon water with a splash of lemon. It will require a little discipline at first, but soon enough it healthy choices become second nature. This isn’t to say you won’t ever indulge, but it’s good to take hold of the steering wheel and make wise choices instead of letting your cravings steer your palate.

    1. Eat at regular intervals (3-4 hours between mini-meals).

    1. Make your sauces and dressings superfoods. Get creative in the kitchen with flavors that pop! Garlic, lemon, umeboshi plum vinegar, miso, toasted sesame oil, cumin, turmeric, tamari, curry (red, green & yellow) … the list is endless!

  1. Get a Belly Fix. I considered all of these ideas when writing The 21-Day Belly Fix Diet. The recipes are deliciously complex so while you are balancing your gut and shedding pounds, your tastes are remodeled so that you crave healthy foods even when the 21 days are over!