Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, Umami … why taste is so important to our health


Most of us take our sense of taste for granted, because it is always “just there”. But if you’ve ever had a bad head cold or Covid-19 that has temporarily robbed you of your sense of taste, you’ll understand how important it is. Fundamentally our sense of taste allows us to make decisions about what we eat. There are five basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter an umami. Let’s explore them and learn why they are important to our health.

We need to eat to survive, but how do we know what we should and shouldn’t eat? Technically we could eat all sorts of things – sand, grass, wood and dirt for example, but we don’t. This is because those five basic tastes help us decide whether something we put in our mouths should be eaten. And each of those five tastes has an important role in ensuring our survival. 

Sweet – ensures that we get an adequate intake of carbohydrates to make energy in the body. Sugars provide fast energy, important for the fight or flight response, while carbohydrates replenish our energy stores, preventing us from starving.

Sour – most people find sour acceptable in small amounts, however larger quantities are not enjoyed. Sour taste is important in keeping us safe by alerting us to food that is not suitable to eat. Milk is a good illustration of this; milk that has gone off tastes sour. This is because the lactic acid concentration increases in old milk providing that characteristic sour taste that signals to us not to consume it. Similarly, sour is important in detecting ripeness. Unripe fruit’s sour taste alerts us not to eat it. 

Salty – sodium is crucial for controlling the fluid levels in our body and plays a role in ensuring we have the optimum level of sodium. Eating too much salt can be dangerous to our body, so our taste alerts us to high levels of saltiness.

Bitter – toxins and poisons are often characterised by a strong bitter taste which we naturally reject, so bitter plays an important role in preventing us ingesting harmful substances. Although bitter is an innately unpleasant taste to humans, we have learnt to enjoy mildly bitter ingredients like coffee, citrus peel and cruciferous vegetables.   

Umami – this means “pleasant savoury taste” in Japanese. Its flavour comes from an amino acid, glutamate, and it is strongly connected to protein which is the reason why foods like meat are so tasty. Protein is an essential building block of the body and is the main component of our muscles, bones, organs, skin and nails. It is essential for our health and wellbeing and umami ensures that we get an adequate intake of protein.

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