Taste is more than a sensual experience: it is a signal of nutritional value or danger. It has evolved as a vital survival mechanism in mammals (see page S16) and driven epic periods of human history — it was, after all, the quest for spices that helped launch the age of exploration. Yet our understanding of how taste works has lagged behind the other senses.
In the past decade or so, taste science has been on a roll. In 2000, researchers used the newly available human genome data to help identify the receptors that respond to bitterness (S2). Since then, the receptors for sweet, salty, sour and umami (savoury) have also been identified. The exclusive club of basic tastes might be about to admit new members: carbonation, metallic and fattiness.
What's more, taste is revealed to be a whole-body experience; taste receptors are found in the gut, the airways and even on sperm (S7), but the function of many of these sensors remains unclear.
The centrality of flavour to human culture has driven scientists, chefs and the food industry to experiment with new ways of producing familiar and novel tastes (S14) as well as to create a scientific style of experimental cooking (S10). And while the link between smell and taste is well known, studies are showing that the way we experience food is influenced by all five senses (S4). Individual variation in taste tolerances might help explain why some people tend to be obese (S12), although scientists still struggle with the question of whether taste is an inherent attribute of food or a personal psychological construct (S6). However, while much of taste is subjective, tasting technologies aim to define our eating and drinking experiences with machine-like consistency (S18).
We acknowledge the financial support of Ajinomoto Co., Inc. in producing this Outlook. As always, Nature has full responsibility for all editorial content.