Sensory Systems/Gustatory System/Introduction

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The Gustatory System or sense of taste allows us to perceive different flavors from substances like food, drinks, medicine etc. Molecules that we taste or tastants are sensed by cells in our mouth, which send information to the brain. These specialized cells are called taste cells and can sense 5 main tastes: bitter, salty, sweet, sour and umami (savory). All the variety of flavors that we know are combinations of molecules which fall into these categories.

Measuring the degree by which a substance presents one of the basic tastes is done subjectively by comparing its taste to a taste of a reference substance according to relative indexes of different substances. For the bitter taste quinine (found in tonic water) is used to rate how bitter a substance is. Saltiness can be rated by comparing to a dilute salt solution. The sourness is compared to diluted hydrochloric acid (H+Cl-). Sweetness is measured relative to sucrose. The values of these reference substances are defined as 1.


(Coffee, mate, beer, tonic water etc.)

It is considered by many as unpleasant. In general bitterness is very interesting because a large number of bitter compounds are known to be toxic so the bitter taste is considered to provide an important protective function. Plant leafs often contain toxic compounds. Herbivores have a tendency to prefer immature leaves, which have higher protein content and lower poison levels than mature leaves. It seems that even if the bitter taste is not very pleasant at first, there is a tendency to overcome this aversion because coffee and drinks containing rich amount of caffeine and are widely consumed. Sometimes bitter agents are added to substances to prevent accidental ingestion.


(Table salt)

The salty taste is primarily produced by the presence of cations such as Li+ (lithium ions), K+ (potassium ions) and more commonly Na+ (sodium). The saltiness of substances is compared to sodium chloride, which is typically used as table salt (Na+Cl-). Potassium chloride K+Cl- is the principal ingredient used in salt substitutes and has an index of 0.6 (see bellow part 5) compared to 1 of Na+Cl-.


(Lemon, orange, wine, spoiled milk and candies containing citric acid)

Sour taste can be mildly pleasant and it is linked to salty flavor but more exacerbated. Typically sour are fruits, which are over-riped, spoiled milk, rotten meat, and other spoiled foods, which can be dangerous. It also tastes acids (H+ ions) which taken in large quantities can cause irreversible tissue damage. Sourness is rated compared to hydrochloric acid (H+Cl-), which has a sourness index of 1.


(Sucrose (table sugar), cake, ice cream etc.)

Sweetness is regarded as a pleasant sensation and is produced by the presence of mostly sugars. Sweet substances are rated relative to sucrose, which has an index of 1. Nowadays there are many artificial sweeteners in the market, these include saccharin, aspartame and sucralose but it is still not clear how these substitutes activate the receptors.

Umami (savory or tasty)[edit]

(Cheese, soy sauce etc.)

Recently, umami has been added as the fifth taste. This taste signals the presence of L-glutamate and it is a very important for the Eastern cuisines. Monosodium glutamate is commonly used to bring umami to food, but various plants and meats are also sources of glutamates. Umami is further enhanced when glutamate is present with the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate.