Here’s a little break today from all the travel posts:

I recently wrote a piece on the increasing scientific evidence for fat as a basic taste (yup, just like umami). While still not definitive, many taste scientists are becoming more and more convinced that our tongues can actually taste fat. Not only that, but there are a host of other tastes that we may have receptors for and that scientists are studying — things like calcium, carbonation, water, starch, and metallicity. The piece appears in today’s Health & Science section of The Washington Post, and you can read it here.

I talked to so many fascinating people and learned so much while researching this piece, it was impossible to include all of it in the article. One really fun website I wanted to mention is Barb Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing. That’s also the title of her recently published book, which I’m in the middle of and highly recommend as a fascinating and very accessible read on the science of taste. I particularly love these fun exercises on sensory science on her site!

I also enjoyed talking with Linda Bartoshuk, who is known for her work on the genetics of taste and for coining the term “supertaster” (someone who is particularly sensitive to tastes). Bartoshuk views basic tastes as being hard-wired in our brains: we’re born liking sweet (like mother’s milk) and hating bitter (which serves an evolutionary role in turning us away from poison). Under this view, umami is not considered a basic taste because it has no evolutionary purpose, and the widespread fascination with and acceptance of umami may instead have more to do with marketing. Hm… Guess I should not be suckered into trying out umami paste then.

Lastly, before we all get our hopes up on being able to buy fat paste in a tube in the near future, I should mention that scientists believe that the taste of fat is actually, well, not pleasant. The taste receptor that’s been discovered is for free fatty acids, which don’t typically exist in pure form in foods, and when they do, they usually indicate that a food has gone rancid. For example, fatty acid is what’s responsible for the stink in stinky cheese. What we normally eat and enjoy in foods are fats known as triglycerides (composed of three fatty acids and glycerol), which we’re not yet sure can be broken down on the tongue in order to taste. We experience triglycerides typically through aroma and texture. Rick Mattes has done extensive research on the topic and explains that our taste receptor for fat (or fatty acid, specifically) may serve more as a warning system, like bitterness, for foods that have gone rancid.

Did that last part just go over your head a little bit? If so, no worries — it completely went over mine too initially. :) I’m most grateful to the many people I talked with who helped illuminate the science of taste a bit for me. It’s definitely encouraged me to delve more deeply into the topic.

If you’re interested in learning more about the science of taste, be sure to check out Jeannine Delwiche’s helpful site, Tasting Science.