Taste is the oldest of our five senses, and yet perhaps the least understood. It’s far more complicated than salty versus sweet: New research is dramatically expanding our knowledge of taste, showing that it’s intimately connected to obesity, mood, immunity, and more. In this episode, we get into the science of how taste works, why we taste what we do, and what makes supertasters unique. And finally, we hack our taste buds—for fun, but, in the future, maybe for health, too.
For thousands of years, the sense of taste was either looked down upon or misunderstood. The Ancient Greeks thought taste was humanity’s lowest and grossest sense, and the only thing many of us learned about taste in school—the tongue map—turns out to be completely wrong. In the last 30 years, however, thanks to the genetics revolution, scientists have finally started to understand more about how our taste buds work to detect chemicals in our saliva—and why. Researcher Paul Breslin and author John McQuaid help us understand the evolutionary reasons behind the five basic tastes—sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami—and biologist Thomas Finger compares the human ability to taste with that of cats, who can only taste umami, and catfish, which have tastebuds all over their skin and whiskers, not just in their mouths.