We all grew up with the notion that each taste has its own firmly circumscribed detection zone, an idea that can be traced back to a 1942 misunderstanding by a Harvard professor of a 1901 German published paper, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, that this concept of the tongue map was debunked, considering it would take only seconds for 8-year-olds to disprove it.
Albeit, it is true that in some people the receptors for a certain taste may be more condensed in distinct areas on the tongue, this still won’t shroud the fact that all of them are found all over, and a Q-tip dipped in the lime juice will taste sour no matter where you dab it.
Our obsessions with food are because of the pleasure we get from flavours. One just doesn’t seem to get enough of it and the modern food industry leaves no stones unturned to serve to this tremendous source of elation, often leading to unhealthy habits. This perpetual preoccupation with food has led to a spurt in research on taste and its different aspects. Here’s the part where the term sensory analysis starts making sense. Sensory analysis or evaluation can be understood as a scientific discipline that statistically analyses consumer products with the human senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing.
Aristotle had counted seven basic tastes: the four knowns to us all since forever, along with pungent, astringent and harsh. In recent years, we’ve come to accept sweet, sour, bitter, salty, astringent, pungent and umami, which is described by a Japanese scientist as the mouth-filling, savoury, deliciousness, created or enhanced by brothy meaty foods like soy sauce, aged beef, miso and monosodium glutamate. Astringency can be defined as the dryness that several foods cause inside the mouth, like unripe bananas and Pungency, can be described as the spiciness or dry heat in hot foods usually created by volatile aromatics in the foods.
There are many types of sensory tests to analyse varied products, with ‘Sensory profiling’ being the classic one. In this test, each taster describes the product being reviewed by means of a questionnaire including a list of descriptors (e.g. acidity, bitterness, etc.). The analysis starts with the outer perceptions of the food product, the appearance.
For example, in a burger, one would observe if it is well stacked, with the condiments and patties, all in place and not drooping. Then moving on to identify the aromas or the odour detected prior to tasting the product, and with one deep sniff or several small ones, would try perceiving all aromas, rating intensity of each distinctly, out of 10. It’s beneficial if one takes the help of the flavour wheel, to be more precise in their observations.
Aromas are what make the food more enjoyable and tastier. But there’s another lesser-known factor affecting palatability as one should know that only a small part of our experience of food comes from our taste buds, the rest is really the consequence of a kind of backward smelling, called ‘aromatics’. It can be easily demonstrated by treating yourself with candy. When you have it and you pinch your nose you’ll register the sweet taste which comes from the sugar, but when you let go of your nose you’ll perceive the vanilla flavour, which has no taste, just a flavour which cant be detected by a pinched nose. Aromatics are sometimes hard to register and is done after the identification of flavours of the food. One would chew the food and inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose, slowly and deeply to identify the aromatics. After this comes the aftertaste which is defined as the length of positive flavour qualities emanating from the back of the palate and remaining even after swallowing the food.
Over the years, scientists have made great progress in taste receptor identification and the gene code for them and are trying to understand the sensory machinery that produces our experiences with food. The Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology under the ‘IndiGen’ programme is undertaking the task of whole-genome sequencing of thousands of individuals representing diverse ethnic groups from India in collaboration to TagTaste, to identify the ‘Supertaster’ and what makes their taste buds and genes different from the others, a study that would change our understanding of the world of flavours.