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The Secrets of Taste

Taste is the least understood of the human senses. First, the complex biology controlling taste is not easy to study. Secondly, taste cells are continually being born, turning over and dying. With these cells continually regenerating, the nervous system has to make and lose the connections repeatedly. Additionally, it has to maintain continuity so that sugar will always taste sweet. Taste sensation in humans is detected by the taste buds. These are clusters of 30 to 100 taste cells on the tongue. Perception of taste begins when a particular molecule interacts with specialized receptors in the membrane of a taste cell. This interaction triggers a signaling cascade that culminates with signals making their way to the brain through a network of taste nerve fibers. Depending on the signal, pleasant or unpleasant, the mouth swallows or spits. Newly identified taste receptors and molecules help scientists understand this elusive sense in the mouth.

The researchers are using receptor-based approaches to discover novel odor and taste compounds. This approach, common in the pharmaceutical industry, is now being applied to the food, flavor and fragrance industries. With new developments in the field of taste, the food industry seeks to develop novel taste modifiers, such as bitter blockers and sweet enhancers, and discover novel odor and taste compounds. (Based on articles from C & EN, Sept. 10, 2001)

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