Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Colors & How We Taste Things

Do taste buds work like colors? What makes something, whatever food, whatever thing you place in your mouth, taste the way it does? I don't only mean sweet versus sour versus hot and so forth. I mean this type of sweet compared to that kind of sweet; this kind of sour compared to that kind of sour; an apple compared to an orange compared to a cheese cake and on and on.

Years back I remember reading in Scientific American magazine an in depth article on the subject of how our mouth, and more specifically our tongue, tastes things and differentiates one taste from another. It spoke of flavor receptors (taste buds) which react and send messages to the brain. Interesting as the article may have been it didn't really answer the questions. What it did say is which part of  the tongue is responsible in tasting things; which part tastes sour, which part tastes sweet and so on. It also explained chemically how this is done--how the body responds and reacts to such a change. And it concluded that no two people taste things the same way--the same amount of sugar will taste sweeter to one person and less to the other. One concluded here that this difference in tasting is not cultural since culture (your family, your country and everything else that is part of it) will help you like or dislike some food but not command to what degree you find something bitter.

So what do I mean by, "Do taste buds work like colors?" 
Colors work in two ways; that is to say there is the addition method of creating and mixing colors and there is the subtractive method. When you mix a certain amount of any of the three primary colors red,blue and yellow with paints you get a different color; red and yellow will give orange. The more colors you add to the mix the closer you get to black. If you use light, on the other hand, cyan, magenta and yellow, you also get a result whereby a different color is produced, except this time the more colors you add (hence more light) the closer you get to white.

Back to tasting, I asked myself does taste work the same way--like light? If u add taste property 'X' with taste property 'Y' do you get X+Y=Z as with paints. This solution seems to be the logical answer. Sweet plus sour tastes sour-sweet. So it seems as long as you think it works like adding paint but what if it works like adding light. According the the sweet-sour example one would think it does indeed work like paint but I believe it also works like light: sweet + sour equals -sweet + -sour. My evidence for this lies in the fact that if you taste, for example, a pizza with mushrooms and cheese you can easily distinguish one from the other--both the taste of the mushroom and the taste of the cheese. On the other hand the more things you add to your pizza the more it becomes harder to distinguish one food from the other. Now the argument seems to favor the 'light' method of tasting, does it not?

Thinking about this further, once again the answer did not seem as simple, as obvious for what I think is happening to the mouth's tasting sensors when you mix a hundred things together is that it is getting confused--a sort of information overload. Too many parts of the mouth are tasting too many things at the same time.

Ah but wait, in thinking about this again another thing came to mind in adding things to a pizza one is neither really using the paint method nor the light method. Let me take this further, yes, if you eat mushrooms and cheese you will be able to distinguish the two and yes, if you put a hundred ingredients your mouth will get confused but what if you add all these things in a blender? Now this mix of tastes is being changed into one new taste--a true combination of all. What is the mouth now tasting? Why is the mouth no longer confused? Once again the answer is obvious with many different foods at the same time the mouth is trying to define many individual tastes all within different parts of the mouth, each part reacting differently in its own way according to its own sensors, one at a time and yet all at the same time. While the other, from the blender, is now a true combination of all but creating one and only one new taste.

Do taste buds work like colors? Oh yeah and I haven't mentioned the function of our nose in all this either--why complicate things?

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