Many of us grew up thinking that our tongue was like a four-piece band: Each section tuned to hit a single flavour note that, when combined, creates the sweet (and salty, sour and bitter) music of taste. That concept, while a fun idea, is inaccurate, because it’s missing a taste profile (umami), and because we now know that our taste buds aren’t so specialised.
“All regions of the tongue can sense all five tastes,” says Steven Roper, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, referring to sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. The taste buds at the front of the tongue are slightly better at sensing sweet, and those at the back are a little more attuned to bitter. “But this is hardly a distinct map,” Roper says.
“Interestingly,” he adds, “the concept of a tongue map originated from a mistranslation from German of an early 20th-century publication showing the slight predominance of certain tastes to certain areas.”
Even if the tongue had specialised flavour zones, it wouldn’t entirely explain the sensations we get from the food and drink we consume—what we perceive as taste is really a combination of taste, texture and smell.
And so, our taste buds function more like a one-man band: Each little bud is capable of picking up multiple flavours at once. When they join forces with the other sensory players in our body, like touch and smell, we can enjoy the full, near-musical experience of a cheeseburger and fries.