Are different tastes in different areas? Can you see a taste bud?
Long ago, when I was a kid, I learned that we only picked up four main flavors from our tongue — sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. All the other nuances of flavor came from smell, not taste, which explained why things tasted so bland when I had a stuffed-up nose from a cold.
I also remember seeing a “map” of the tongue, showing where each flavor receptor was located. Supposedly, sweet was in front and salty was in the back of the tongue.
(I had my doubts. I touched the tip of my tongue to some salt, and sure enough, it tasted salty. How could that be?)
Well, it turns out that the old map of the tongue was incorrect — or rather, it was incorrectly interpreted. But that raises some questions:
- Where are each taste bud type located?
- Can you see a taste bud?
Let’s give these questions a lickin’!
Understanding the taste map
Here’s a map of the tongue, showing the areas that were associated with each flavor. It’s based on research performed by a German scientist, David P Hänig, back in 1901:
But this map wasn’t intended to say “you only taste sour things in zone 2”. Rather, it was meant to indicate that there seemed to be a stronger ability to sense sour flavors, versus sweet, bitter, or salty, when that substance was applied to zone 2.
It was meant to be a “which areas are most sensitive” to a particular taste, rather than “you can only taste that thing here”.
There also isn’t any scale to this. How much more sensitive is section 4 to sweetness than section 1? The only answer given was “more sensitive”, with no quantifying measurements.
Overall, there is some truth to this map, in that taste buds are not scattered evenly over the entire tongue. Rather, they are somewhat concentrated at the tip and edges of the tongue, so you’ll be able to detect flavors more strongly in these areas. And there are some differences in how well different areas of the tongue detect different flavors, although they’re fairly minute; you have all 5 taste receptors in all areas of the tongue.
Where are the taste buds, really?
Despite what the tongue map described, we actually have taste buds all throughout our mouth — not just on our tongue.
Taste buds are actually receptors in small little projections called papillae, and they’re found on our tongue, on our soft palate (the roof of our mouth), our upper esophagus, in our cheeks, and on our epiglottis (the flap at the back of your throat that closes when you eat, so food doesn’t go into your lungs). That’s right, even after you push the food to the back of your mouth, you’re still tasting it!
Taste buds can take several different shapes, including ridges, grooves, and a sort of warty mushroom shape. They’re basically tiny pores, open to accept dissolved food particles in the suspension of saliva.
The pores connect to a type of cell, called a gustatory cell, which detects the taste and sends the info to the brain via a couple of nerves (one for the back of the mouth, one for the front).
On average, you’ve got between 5,000 and 10,000 taste buds. (Why the variation? It depends on age. As we get older, some of our taste buds aren’t replaced, and so foods may taste more bland to older folks.)
Any individual gustatory cell doesn’t last long. The average lifespan of a taste bud cell is only about 10 days, although some of them can last up to 3 weeks.
Why are they dying so fast and replaced so quickly?
It turns out that the mouth is not a very hospitable environment. Between hot foods (ever burn your tongue and struggle to taste afterwards?) and tongue damage (when you bite your tongue, you’re killing your taste!), it’s a harsh world for taste buds. They need to constantly regenerate, since losing your sense of taste is not a good survival mechanism.
Can we see our taste buds?
You can look at your tongue and see lots of little bumps and grooves, but these aren’t the taste bud — at least, not exactly.
Those little bumps are fungiform papillae, one of the shapes of the little fingerlike projections that hold the taste buds, but the buds themselves are tiny little openings on that papillae, too small to see. On average, each little tongue bump has about six taste pores on it.
And each of those pores has 30–50 individual gustatory cells, with their receptors extended and waiting to encounter molecules of flavor.
So we can see the papillae (the bumps), but we can’t see the half-dozen taste buds on each bump, and we can’t see the 30–50 taste cells that are making up each bud.
In summary: taste buds are everywhere, too small to see
Our mouth detects the five main tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, the meaty flavor that was completely missed in the early 1900s) through tiny receptors called gustatory cells, clustered in little buds, on the ends of little fingerlike papillae projections in our mouth.
Most of our taste buds are on our tongue, but they’re also all over the inside of our mouths, including on the roof of our mouth, in our cheeks, and in the back of our throat. They’re most densely clustered along the tip and sides of our tongue — but we can taste in other areas, and each area can taste all five of the listed flavors above.
We can’t see our taste buds, as they’re too small, but we can see the little fingerlike projections, the papillae, where they are located. They’re constantly regrowing, so if you burn your mouth, don’t worry about your sense of taste being dead forever!
That’s some delicious knowledge!
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