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On Taste and Food Cravings

February 26, 2013

Japanese SoupTaste drives appetite and protects us from poisons. Humans perceive taste through sensory organs called taste buds, or gustatory calyculi, concentrated on the top of the tongue. There are between 2000 and 5000 taste buds that are located on the back and front of the tongue. Others are located on the roof, sides and back of the mouth, and in the throat. But, also in the nasal cavity, the stomach, and the intestines.

The sensation of taste can be categorized into five basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami (“delicious taste”). Umami is described as a savory or meaty taste. Glutamate is found in most living things, but when they die, when organic matter breaks down, the glutamate molecule breaks apart. This can happen on a stove when you cook meat, over time when you age a parmesan cheese, by fermentation as in soy sauce or under the sun as a tomato ripens. When glutamate becomes L-glutamate, that’s when things get “delicious.”  Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a chemical food additive, produces a strong umami taste.

In Asian countries within the sphere of mainly Chinese and Indian cultural influence, pungency (piquancy or hotness) had traditionally been considered a sixth basic taste.

Taste buds are able to differentiate between different tastes through detecting interaction with different molecules or ions. Sweet, umami, and bitter tastes are triggered by the binding of molecules to G protein-coupled receptors on the cell membranes of taste buds. Saltiness and sourness are perceived when alkali metal or hydrogen ions enter taste buds, respectively.

As taste senses both harmful and beneficial things, all basic tastes are classified as either aversive or appetitive, depending upon the effect the things they sense have on our bodies. Sweetness helps to identify energy-rich foods, while bitterness serves as a warning sign of poisons.

The basic tastes contribute only partially to the sensation and flavor of food in the mouth — other factors include smell, detected by the olfactory epithelium of the nose; texture, detected through a variety of mechanoreceptors, muscle nerves, etc.; temperature, detected by thermoreceptors; and “coolness” (such as of menthol) and “hotness” (pungency), through chemesthesis.

Cravings

A food craving is an intense desire to consume a specific food, stronger than simply normal hunger. There is no single explanation for food cravings, and explanations range from low serotonin levels affecting the brain centers for appetite to production of endorphins as a result of consuming fats and carbohydrates. The craving of non-food items as food is called pica.

Foods with high levels of sugar glucose, such as chocolate, are more frequently craved than foods with lower sugar glucose, such as broccoli, because when glucose interacts with opioid system in the brain an addictive triggering effect occurs. The consumer of the glucose feels the urge to consume more glucose, much like an alcoholic, because the brain has become conditioned to release dopamine, the “happy hormones”, every time glucose is present.

Over time a person can become addicted to the release of dopamine because this may be their only way of attaining this feeling. This leads to taste addiction disorder. TAD functions biochemically in a parallel way to other compulsive behavior addictions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, anorexia, bulimia, and sex addiction.

Other ways of giving the brain a dopamine bath include: singing, running, dancing, and laughing.

Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taste
– http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15819485
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_craving

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From → Food, Health

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