Inside MOFAD Lab’s Opening Exhibit: From Bite to Brain, How Taste Works

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Taste happens on a very tiny scale. All those little bumps on your tongue? Those aren't actually tastebuds, they're something called papillae, and each one holds an average of six taste buds. You also have tastebuds on the roof of your mouth, and in your throat — in all, somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 taste buds in the average person. Each individual bud is responsible for tasting many tastes: A single taste bud is made up of about 50 to 100 taste receptor cells, each equipped to recognize one of the five tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or umami. There might be other cells that recognize other tastes, too — like fat — but we still don't know much about those.

So how does a flavor get from your tongue to your brain? When you chew, your food breaks down, and individual molecules end up floating in your saliva. Some of these molecules drift into tiny pores in the papillae. A taste bud is on the other side, with each of its cells reaching a tendril up through the pore like the arm of a sea anemone. These tendrils are ready to catch certain molecules that come their way, and when this happens, it sets off a chain of events that triggers a neuron sitting behind the taste bud. That neuron is connected to one of a few major nerves in your head, and this nerve carries the flavor message to your brain.


The arm of each cell "catches" flavor molecules with proteins, which stick out through the cell's membrane. The molecules are like keys, and the receptors are like locks [this analogy could also be puzzle pieces], both with very particular shapes. A bitter molecule only fits into a bitter receptor, and a sweet molecule only fits into a sweet receptor. When a molecule binds to a receptor — when the key fits into the lock — it causes the receptor to activate another protein inside the cell. This is the beginning of that chain of events that will send a signal to the neuron outside. That signal travels all the way up to the brain and tells it, "Hey! This is bitter!"

But how do we taste so many different complicated flavors if our taste buds only recognize the five basic flavors? That's where smell comes in. While we eat, aroma molecules also travel into our nose, both through our nostrils and up through the back of our throat. They bind to receptor cells in the nose in the same way that flavor molecules bind to receptor cells in the tastebuds, like keys fitting into locks, and again trigger neurons that send a signal to the brain. The only difference is that our nose has a lot more locks in a lot more shapes than our tongue does - enough to recognize about a trillion scents. It's the particular blend of aroma molecules flowing through the nose that gives flavor its nuances, while the tongue picks up the basics.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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