Food taste is arguably one of the most critical considerations in individual food preferences. Consumer surveys confirm that taste is the single most important factor guiding consumer food choice.1 However, in the context of health, this observation poses several different questions: How do individuals perceive tastes differently? Are humans predisposed toward developing certain taste profiles? And, if so, are individual tastes and/or food preferences linked with disease risk and health outcomes?
Perceived Differences in Taste
The physiological science involved in taste is intricate and dynamic. The process begins with chemosensory signals, originating from the taste buds in the mouth which are conveyed to the brain. These signals are processed to generate conscious taste sensations through receptors and channels for the 5 basic tastes—sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.2 While most individuals are very familiar with the commonly discussed sweet, salty, bitter, and sour flavors, umami is less often described. Although recognized for a long time in Japanese culture as an active principle in foods such as seaweed, the savory taste of umami is uniquely different from the classic 4 basic tastes.3 However, one challenge in describing any of these basic tastes is our natural impulse to create descriptions using our own words and perspectives.
Common food flavors can consist of up to hundreds of different compounds that together create a distinguishable flavor, such as “barbeque” or “orange”. Additionally, our other senses of smell, touch, and sight significantly contribute to our overall perception of food recognition and likeability. However, it is important to note that there are certain food characteristics that are correlated with particular food tastes. For instance, the sweetness of food is positively associated with the presence of mono- and disaccharides; salty taste is positively associated with the presence of sodium; and umami taste is often correlated with the presence of protein.4 Nevertheless, the association between nutrient content and taste seems to vary amongst foods, and this association tends to be weaker in more complex foods.5,6
Taste Liking and Causality
A wide range of studies display that food liking includes an association with basic taste qualities. Further, food preferences have been found to develop with experience based on associations formed between food flavors and the consequence of their consumption.7,8 Research attributes differences in these taste perceptions to multiple factors. Studies have pointed to genetic polymorphisms in taste-related genes, as well as to physiological differences, sex, age, and lifestyle habits.9-12 Additionally, through the evolutionary process, perceptions of diverse tastes have been vital for ensuring adequacy for nutrient intake (such as sweet for carbohydrates, salt for minerals, and umami for proteins), and minimizing risk of ingesting potentially harmful substances (such as bitter for some toxins and sour for spoiled foods).13
Taste Perceptions and Risk of Disease
As humans age and the prevalence of chronic disease increases, sensory acuity reportedly changes for both taste and smell.14 These changes can have an impact on food intake. Subtle differences in sensory quality and intensity can influence eating behaviors, as well as total energy consumption. For instance, although sweet and salty tastes are generally known to increase palatability and overall caloric intake, when tastes are varied within a meal, adults have been found to eat less of the more intense-tasting meal and feel more satiated.15 Understanding how these factors affect over/underconsumption, for instance, could be central to the development of food-based approaches to prevent conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes across the lifespan.8
Additionally, although taste perceptions may change over time, these changes may not be caused exclusively by aging. Research suggests that decline in chemosensory perception as individuals age may be due more directly to factors such as poor health status or cognitive decline, rather than the direct effect of age.16
With individualized variability in gauging taste measurements over time, it is often difficult to quantify specific taste perceptions as related to overall health and disease risk. Therefore, just as dietary analyses of nutrients have shifted over time towards dietary patterns versus single nutrients,17 a similar approach to studying taste perceptions has been examined through “taste perception profiles.” Gervis et al.18 attempted to address this issue by developing a data-driven clustering approach to derive taste perception profiles from taste perception scores and examined whether profiles outperformed total taste scores for capturing individual variability in taste perception. These authors concluded that among older adults with metabolic syndrome, taste perception profiles may provide a valuable approach to capture individual variability in perception of all 5 tastes and their collective influence on diet quality. As such, the ability to classify individuals into taste perception profiles may help identify subgroups of individuals at elevated risk for certain diet-related chronic diseases.
While the seemingly innate liking for sweet and salty tastes can sometimes lead consumers to certain foods, taste preferences and subsequent food choices play a major role in overall food consumption. Individual history, perceptions, and lifestyle factors may all be involved in food choices. More research is needed on strategies to investigate and quantify taste preferences and profiles that may ultimately impact food consumption patterns, as well as disease risk and/or positive health outcomes.
- The International Food Information Council (IFIC). The Food and Health Survey. Washington, DC: The IFIC Foundation; 2020.
- Tepper, BJ. Toward a Better Understanding of Diet-Taste Relations. J Nutr 2021; 151: 2503-4.
- Kurihara, K. Umami the Fifth Basic Taste: History of Studies on Receptor Mechanisms and Role as a Food Flavor. Biomed Res Int 2015; 189402.
- Martin C, Issanchou S. Nutrient sensing: what can we learn from different tastes about the nutrient contents in today’s foods? Food Qual Pref 2019; 71:185–96.
- Liem DG, Russell CG. The Influence of Taste Liking on the Consumption of Nutrient Rich and Nutrient Poor Foods. Front Nutr 2019; 6: 174.
- Lease H, Hendrie GA, Poelman AAM, Delahunty C, Cox D. A sensory-diet database: a tool to characterise the sensory qualities of diets. Food Qual Pref 2016; 49:20–32.
- Boesveldt S, Bobowksi N, McCrickerd K, Maitre I, Sulmont- Rosse C, Forde CG. The changing role of the senses in food choice and food intake across the lifespan. Food Qual Pref 2018; 68:80–9.
- Boesveldt S, de Graaf K. The differential role of smell and taste for eating behavior. Perception 2017; 46: 307-19.
- Bachmanov AA, Beauchamp GK. Taste receptor genes. Annu Rev Nutr 2007; 27: 389-414.
- Roper SD, Chaundhari N. Taste buds: cells, signals, and synapses. Nat Rev Neurosci 2017; 18: 465-97.
- Barragan R, Coltell O, Portoles O, Asensio EM, Sorli JV, Ortega-Azorin G, Gonzalex JI, Saiz C, Fernandez-Carrion R, Ordovas JM, et al. Bitter, sweet, salty, sour, umami taste perception decreases with age: sex-specific analysis, modulation by genetic variants and taste preference associations in 18 to 80 year old subjects. Nutrients 2018; 10: 1539.
- Dovey TM, Boyland EJ, Trayner P, Miller J, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar A, Cole J, Halford JCG. Alterations in taste perception due to recreational drug use are due to smoking a substance rather than ingesting it. Appetite 2016; 107: 1-8.
- Breslin PAS. An evolutionary perspective on food review and human taste. Curr Biol 2013; 23: R409-18.
- Braun T, Doerr JM, Peters L, Viard M, Reuter I, Prosiegel M, Weber S, Yeniguen M, Tschernatsch M, Gerriets T, Juenemann M, Huttner HB, Hamzic S. Age-related changes in oral sensitivity, taste, and smell. Scien Reports 2022; 12: 1533.
- Bolhuis DP, Lakemond CMM, deWijk RA, Luning PA, deGraaf C. Both longer oral sensory exposure to and higher intensity of saltiness decrease ad libitum food intake in health normal-weight men. J Nutr 2011; 141: 2242-2248.
- Sulmont-Rosse C, Maitre I, Amand M, Symoneaux V, Van Wymelbeke V, Caumon E. Evidence for different patterns of chemosensory alterations in the elderly population: Impact of age versus dependency. Chemical Senses 2015; 40: 152-164.
- Snetselaar, LG, de Jesus JM, DeSilva DM, Stoody EE. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Nutr Today 2021; 56: 287-295.
- Gervis JE, Chui KKH, Ma J, Coltell O, Fernandez-Carrion R, Sorli JV, Barragan R, Fito M, Gonzalez JI, Corella D, Lichtenstein AH. Data-driven clustering approach to derive taste perception profiles from sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami perception scores: an illustration among older adults with metabolic syndrome. J Nutr; 151: 2843-2851.