A Matter of Taste

Your spouse says the meal you cooked is bitter — you think he's crazy and tell him so. But wait a minute: Scientists have recently discovered anatomical differences in the tongue that help explain why what tastes bitter or sweet to one person may not be tasted by another at all. According to Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., an experimental psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, people aren't just being picky when they prefer their food a certain way. "There are individual differences in the sense of taste," says Pelchat.

Smell and taste belong to our sensing system called chemosenses. Smelling and tasting begin when molecules are released by the substances around us that stimulate special cells in the nose, mouth or throat. These sensory cells transmit messages through nerves to the brain, where specific smells or tastes are identified.

The four basic taste sensations are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. We experience flavor by using all our senses, but it is the sense of taste, centered on the tongue, that gives us the information on these four fundamental qualities. Genetics, food temperature, age and our overall health all play a role in taste perception.

Find that you aren't in touch with the taste of your food? Try doctoring a recipe by adding more flavor-boosting extracts, combining foods at different temperatures, or rotating foods as you eat to reap the benefit of complementary flavors. Meanwhile, if someone says your dinner tastes bitter, try not to take it personally, and pass the honey his or her way.

— Tammy Darling