Discovering the five flavor points of taste

Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2008

Years ago, while I was teaching some staff how to make soup and achieve the flavor balance I wanted, I discovered I did not have the proper understanding of how we taste foods.

I knew how to make foods taste good and understood that there is a beautiful balance that must be met to achieve great-tasting food. But I lacked the knowledge to properly articulate to my staff how to reach that goal. I began to research the idea and discovered we taste five primary flavor types: sour, bitter, sweet, salty and umami.

Sour is the detection of acid in foods and is represented by vinegars and citrus juices to name a couple. Sour flavor is perceived through hydrogen ion channels that recognize concentrations of hydronium ions.

Sweet is recognized through a group of proteins named gustducin and causes a host of reactions on our tongue that our brains recognize as sweet.

Same is true for bitter flavors. They are interpreted by G-protein receptors of which we have 25 different types.

Saltiness is perceived by the presence of sodium ions. Interestingly, other alkali metals taste salty, but the further, chemically speaking, they are from sodium the less salty they taste.

Umami is a recent addition to the pillars of the taste profile. Until recently, there were just four widely recognized flavor types. Umami is described as the presence of meaty or savory flavor. It is present in many protein-rich foods, shitake mushrooms and monosodium glutamate. I like to think of it as the stock taste that rounds out the flavor balance and brings it all together to evoke deliciousness.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not have specific regions on our tongue that sense only one component of taste. We taste with taste receptor cells that are clustered in taste buds. We have taste receptor cells on the surface of the tongue, part of the pharynx and along the soft palate. Each taste bud has 50 to 100 taste cells that receive all five taste sensations in all the varying degrees.

But the five tastes are just the basis of flavor. Smell plays an even larger role in the overall sensation of taste. There appears to be more than a thousand types of scent receptors that take the five primary taste receptors and greatly varies the flavors we can discern.

I believe the basis of every meal we enjoy comes from a harmonious balance of the five flavors. This balance is the base that is improved or degraded by the addition of slight imbalances of the five flavor types and through the complex additions of smells.

If a dish is lacking a flavor type or is out of balance too much, then the meal will suffer accordingly. In art, architecture, music, and even biology, there is a golden ratio of balance and beauty. I hope one day we can develop a golden ratio for the primary flavor types so that each and every meal consumed will at least have a good foundation.

Enjoy Juneau!

• Brady Deal works for Sysco Foods and can be reached at

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