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Taste Bud Map Myth Busted

As you scroll by dreaming about dinner, take a moment to thank your taste buds. Without them, our 3 daily meals would be dull and tasteless. Taste buds are small sensory organs found in the little bumps (also known as papillae) on our tongues and are the primary reason we can enjoy our favorite foods. The tongue is a very small organ, but it contains up to 8,000 taste buds, which are replaced every two weeks. Our taste buds have microscopic hairs, called microvilli, which pick up dissolved chemicals from food and send electrical signals to our brain that tell us what it tastes like. 

Our taste buds distinguish between five different tastes:

1.     Sweet

2.     Bitter

3.     Savory

4.     Salty

5.     Sour 

Have you heard of the “tongue map?” Many people have been told the taste buds for “sweet” are on the tip of the tongue; the “salt” taste buds are on either side of the front of the tongue; “sour” taste buds are behind this; and “bitter” taste buds are way in the back.

The tongue map dates back to 1901 and was researched by a German scientist named D.P. Hanig. He discovered the four basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter and salty.  Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist, identified a fifth taste, umami, in the early 1900s. This is the taste of glutamate, common in Japanese foods like Kombu, a type of sea vegetable similar to kelp.

But researchers in the 1970s determined the tongue map was a century-old myth based on Hanig’s research that no one challenged. In fact, all parts of the tongue can detect these common tastes. And it’s not just your tongue that gives you insight into what your food tastes like. Other factors, such as smell, spiciness and texture also contribute to flavor. While you may have at one point tried to trick your taste buds, they are smarter than that!

Because of the little grooves the taste buds make on your tongue, it is also a breeding ground for bacteria. That’s why keeping your tongue clean is an important part of your daily routine. Poor oral hygiene and not keeping your tongue clean can even lead to what is called ‘hairy tongue’ when the papillae get enlarged. While mostly harmless, it’s gross.

So, don’t forget to clean your tongue with your toothbrush every time you brush.  It helps keep your mouth healthy, and your friends will thank you for your better breath.

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