How Do Taste Buds Work?

By Amanda Roland

Some people cannot resist the zest of a spicy chicken wing while others crave the taste of their favorite salted caramel Frappuccino. Both are brought to us by the special talents of our taste buds—the tiny bumps on the surface of our tongue that help us to perceive taste and temperature. Do you ever wonder why some of us can withstand highly spicy foods and others can’t? It turns out that taste buds are not uniform across all adults—in fact, the number of them can vary greatly. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), most of us have between 2,000 and 8,000 in out mouths with some people having fewer and larger buds and others with smaller buds.

We are born with 9,000 taste buds. They work in combination with our sense of smell as our sense of taste relies primarily on odors. Taste buds are a combination of basal cells, receptor cells, and between 10 – 50 taste receptor cells. NIH tells us that taste receptor cells are renewed every nine to 10 days. Some contain proteins that can bind to chemicals on the food we eat. Others have ion channels that are activated by different chemicals. Once the receptor has detected a particular chemical, this information is conveyed along a series of neural pathways to the brain, where taste is perceived.

The receptors for sweet, bitter, sour and umami (savory) tastes are proteins that are produced and coded for by particular genes in our DNA found on the surface of the cells. They react in the presence of certain chemicals, triggering a sequence of events resulting in the chemical message, according to the Australian Academy of Science.

Not only do taste buds work in conjunction with our sense of smell, there are also taste receptors found in our throat and in our gut. These act in a slightly different way to those on our tongue.

What happens to your taste buds?

Our taste buds change as we age. The Cleveland Clinic reports that during middle age (between the ages of 40 and 50), they decrease, and the rest shrink. It differs between men and women as well. This usually begins to occur in our 40s in women and in our 50s in men. Once the taste buds shrink, they do not function as well. This means a decreased sensitivity to taste, typically affecting salty or sweet, and eventually sour or bitter foods. After we turn 60, we may not be able to differentiate between the taste of sweet, salty, sour and foods.

Generally, we do not feel our taste buds. They can become irritated or swollen, which can make consuming certain foods uncomfortable. According to Medical News Today, there are a number of causes for irritated buds which include burning your mouth, acid reflux, dry mouth, infection, allergies and food sensitivities. To help relieve the symptoms of irritated taste buds, it is recommended that you gargle with warm salt water. Use ice chips to relieve swelling or use a special dry mouth rinse.

WACKY FACTS

  • Taste buds are not just on your tongue but also on the roof of your mouth and your esophagus.
  • People with significantly more taste buds are called super-tasters. They are much more sensitive to taste and may find certain foods too bitter or sweet.
  • Taste buds only live for 10 to 14 days, but they grow back.
  • When food tastes too spicy, it’s actually stimulating the pain receptors in your mouth and not the taste buds.
  • They protect you from dangerous foods. When something tastes wrong, you spit it out and prevent it from getting to your stomach.

BY TRACY WRIGHT