The Science behind Taste Buds

Nicolette Francey Asselin, M.D.
3 min readJan 17, 2019

The ability to taste food is a vital part of our lives.

Art: Sakurra Source: Fotolia

While some studies differ on this point and claim that it is inherited, the ultimate sense of taste is learned and developed at an early age. Early exposure strongly influences the components of flavors, detected by our sense of smell (olfactory system) and taste (gustatory system).

Learning begins during pregnancy (in utero) and continues during early (breast or formula) feedings. These early occurrences and exposures set the stage for later food selections and are essential in establishing life-long nutrition habits.

Taste is a sensory modality involving the oral perception of food-derived chemicals. These stimulate receptor cells within taste buds and help us decide whether we like the food we eat.

In humans, taste buds are located on the tongue. Taste receptors are located on them, next to papillae, nipple-like structures. These structures are located on our tongue, the top of our mouth (soft palate), in the upper part of our food pipe (esophagus), our cheeks and the back of our mouth (epiglottitis). They are involved in the detection of taste perception. These five elements are salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and umami (described as savory, full-bodied, and meaty).

On average, each human tongue holds 2,000–8,000 taste buds grouped with taste papillae. Hair like features called microvilli extend from these receptors. Each receptor connects with sensory neurons that, in turn, send data to a nerve that transmits the information to a specific part of our brain. There are several types of papillae, and each transmits unique information to the nerves that transmit it to our brain.

The Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit independent scientific institute, located at the University City Science Center research campus in Philadelphia, conducts and publishes interdisciplinary research on taste, smell, and chemesthesis (chemically mediated skin senses, such as the burn of capsaicin or the tingle of carbonation).

A team of researchers at the Center discovered that flavors from the mother’s diet during pregnancy are transmitted to amniotic fluid and swallowed by the fetus. This study confirms that the types of food eaten by mothers, reflective of the flavors of their culture, are experienced by infants before their first exposure to solid foods. Infants will experience some of these same flavors in breast milk, a liquid that, like amniotic fluid, comprises essences that directly reflect the foods, spices, and beverages eaten by the mother. These significant findings point to the importance of desirable, wholesome habits early on.

Neuroscientists have also studied how the receptor cells recognize and respond to chemical stimuli and how this information is transmitted to and processed in the brain. The perception of taste by the specialized sensory receptor cells starts a cascade of molecular and cellular events that are transmitted through electric signals to the central nervous system.

The flavor of food or beverage represents a complex series of coded messages from taste, smell, and chemical irritants. The detection begins in the receptor cells and opens an ion channel in the cell membrane, which will fire a signal to the brain, where the recognition of the taste occurs.

The above description is very rudimentary, as it isn’t the objective of this book to go beyond a fundamental understanding of the crucial importance of developing sound eating patterns at an early age.

Is there an emotional link?

Many factors influence our taste buds, including prenatal exposure, cells on our tongues, what our noses smell, and even the emotional atmosphere. Getting upset at children during meals will not have a positive influence on their food preferences. What will be positive is to provide an array of nutritious and attractively-prepared food and let them experiment and develop their taste buds.

Source: Book GetWell Education Health Series



Nicolette Francey Asselin, M.D.

Dr. Asselin is a medical writer. She practiced medicine for many years and favors preventive medicine.