Taste buds are a fascinating part of our human anatomy. They are teeny weeny, but when viewed through an electron microscope, they look like “huge volcanoes on Mars” says Diane Ackerman in her book A Natural History of the Senses.
(I will use her book as my primary reference here.) Adults have about 10,000 taste buds designed to register four different tastes: salt, sour,
sweet, bitter. Each taste bud consists of about 50 taste cells that relay information to a neuron which then alerts the brain. At the tip of the tongue, we taste sweet things; at the back of the tongue, bitter things; at the sides, sour things. We taste salty things over the entire surface of our tongue, but mainly in the front. You can test the location of your own taste buds by putting a dab of salt or sugar on your tongue. Or eat a pickle or a lemon and see where you taste it the most. Some foods, of course, stimulate more than one kind of taste bud.
Our taste buds wear our every seven to ten days. Our body replaces them, though not as frequently after age forty-five. I find all of this quite incredible. My body has been continuously replacing my taste buds my entire life—without my having to remind it to do so! Of course, my body has been replacing every part of me my entire life—from bones to tissue to fingernails—and I have been scarcely aware of it!
A baby has more taste buds than an adult. In fact, some of the baby’s taste buds are even in their cheeks. I guess this is nature’s way of making sure babies drink their milk. Milk must taste very good to them. Ackerman says that no two people “taste the same plum.” This means that individuals have different “tastes.” Some can’t get enough salt while others can’t get enough sweets. Some love “painful” food like hot peppers. Others like their food more bland like boiled potatoes. Heredity plays a role in what tastes good to us as does age, habit, and even mood.
Culture greatly influences taste. The Masai in Tanzania, for example, enjoy drinking cow’s blood. Germans and Slavs (like me!) delight in eating rancid cabbage (sauerkraut). French eat garlic-soaked snails. And many people in the world dine on rodents and insects. We humans are omnivores. Unlike a koala bear who eats only eucalyptus leaves, humans will eat just about anything. To be an omnivore is handy. It’ s exciting. But it can also be dangerous. How many humans died before we learned some foods (like certain mushrooms) were toxic?
Our sense of smell contributes significantly to our sense of taste. When our nose is stuffed up, food might might not taste as good as it usually does. We normally chew food about a hundred times per minute. But Ackerman writes: “If we let food linger in our mouth, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, roll it around on our tongue, then chew it slowly so that we can hear its echoes, what we’re really doing is savoring it.” I wonder: how often do I really savor my food, that is, allow a food’s smell, taste, texture, and color to delight me? Or do I just gobble my food and run?
Today, let us thank our taste buds for the wonderful job they do for us, encouraging us to eat and providing us with a wide variety of pleasurable tastes. And, while we’re at it, let us thank God, the Creator of our taste buds, for giving us this great gift we sometimes take for granted. As a way of showing our gratitude, let us take time today to savor our food—really savor it! Mmmmmm!
What foods do you find particularly tasty?
Do you savor your food?