Our tastes change throughout the course of our lives, and they’re also different to everybody else’s taste buds. Why?
You used to loathe mushrooms, but now you ask for extra ‘shrooms slathered onto your creamy Portobello chicken. Most kids despise the taste of coffee and beer (we’re talking just trying a sip of dad’s), but come young adulthood, those are the two things we look forward to most. What governs the way our taste buds evolve? And why are everyone’s taste buds unique?
It turns out it has a lot to do with papillae — those strange bumps on our tongue. Most of those bumps host our taste buds, so people with more papillae than others will typically find certain foods overwhelming. Instead of extra spicy, triple X buffalo wings, these “supertasters” will go for mild in order to avoid an overwhelming taste explosion in their mouths.
On the other side of the spectrum lies “subtasters,” or those who are low in papillae density and thus enjoy tastes that are less bland. However, taste doesn’t rely solely on the papillae — individual tastes are shaped by something else. Alexander Bachmanov, a geneticist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, told Popular Science that humans carry a range of 20 to 40 genes dedicated to bitter taste receptors.
Our brains recognize five different taste groups — bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory. However, the way that our brains perceive those tastes varies from each individual based on the brain signals triggered by certain chemicals. Our taste buds also camp out in more places than just our tongues. The roofs of our mouths as well as our throats can also taste, which explains why some nasty medicines taste so awful as they trickle into our bodies.
Interestingly, our taste experience begins in the womb, and exposure to these tastes stick with us after birth. The way we perceive certain flavors is coded in our DNA. But it’s not all about biological factors; our childhood experiences can also shape our likes and dislikes. “When we are exposed to any stimulus like food, the chemistry in our brain changes in some way,” Joseph Pinzone, endocrinologist and professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told Shape. If your grandfather always gave you butterscotch candies when you were young and you associated this gesture with love, you develop neural connections in your brain that favor sweets—that is, you acquire a sweet tooth.”
So the way our taste buds work is pretty straightforward, but why do they change as we get older and seem to dull down with age? Sadly, a physiological effect of aging is that our taste buds stop regenerating (around the age of 40) and our sense of smell weakens. Smell has a lot more to do with taste than you might think. Smelling freshly baked cinnamon cookies straight out of the oven will trigger your craving to eat the sweet treats. This is why many elderly people lose their appetites — not only do their taste buds stop regenerating, but they lose the ability to crave foods based on delicious smells.
Sadly, there aren’t any existing medicines or treatments to restore a sense of taste. But scientists and engineers are constantly working to create new miracle cures, and with the technology we have today, it wouldn’t be surprising if a taste-restoring treatment is concocted in the years to come. Until then, lap up all the spicy, sweet, and sour tastes you can.
FYI, if you’re curious whether you’re a “supertaster” or a “subtaster,” grab some blue food coloring. Popular Science reports that blue dye doesn’t stick to tongue papillae, so the bluer your tongue gets, the more of a “subtaster” you are — load on the hot sauce!