The tongue map myth
We have all learned in grade school science that different parts of the tongue detect different tastes. The front of the tongue detects sweet or salty tastes, while the back of the tongue detects bitter flavors. You might have even performed the experiment as a child where someone drops different flavors on your tongue using an eye dropper as a science experiment. A recent popular video podcast (one which I like very much) even mentions that you should swallow beer while tasting it in order to allow the bitter flavors of the beer to be stronger. The tongue map is often pulled out to give wine or beer tasting that scientific credibility. The problem is: its crap.
No science for tongue map
There is little scientific basis for different parts of the tongue discerning different flavors, and no scientific basis for the regimented tongue map. The confusion comes from a mistranslation of a German text by Harvard psychologist Edwin G. Boring (what a great name) in 1901. The myth was debunked in the 1970s, but for some reason it will not go away.
How does the tongue work?
In reality, the whole tongue and parts of the mouth are capable of distinguishing all different flavors. Some people are better at this than others, and the ability follows a typical bell curve. About 25% of the population is considered supertasters, while 25% are sub par. Women are more likely to be supertasters. Women are often employed as quality tasters in breweries and wineries for this reason. Asians, Africans and South Americans are also more likely to be supertasters.
Your taste buds, called fungiform papillae, give you the ability to taste. It is thought that supertasters have more taste buds than average, but it still requires more research to be sure. A heightened ability for taste would be beneficial in some regions of the world, but could be a liability in others. The buds can differentiate five flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Umami is a Japanese word meaning “savory”, and was identified by a Japanese researcher in 1908. Umami applies to the detection of glutamates – meats, cheeses, or other heavy protein flavored foods. It is also why MSG (monosodium glutamate) makes food taste better. Each taste bud has about 100 flavor receptors. The distribution of which type of flavors the taste bud can determine varies, but the distribution does not match the tongue map at all.
So next time a tasting expert trots this cliché out, correct the expert – tongue in cheek!
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I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!