The science of (cheese) tasting

We do not eat solely to survive but also for pleasure and enjoyment. The sense of taste assists us in debunking the omnivore’s dilemma, the daily conundrum of what to eat. Taste solves this dilemma by allowing humans to discern not only what is going to be a palatable and pleasurable experience but also what food will provide a nutritious meal.

A taste experience is produced when a compound reacts with the taste bud receptors located within the fungiform papillae of the tongue. These receptors vary in specialization and are geared towards specific substances. For example a salt compound has a specific receptor that will yield a response to the specific compound. The combination of this input to the brain from receptors creates the sensation of taste.

There are five specific types of taste receptors, each corresponding to one of the five flavors. They are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Each of these flavors corresponds to different compounds: sweet compounds are glucose based, salty compounds are salts, sour compounds are acidic, bitter compounds are basic, and umami compounds are derived from glutamate. These five tastes form what is termed complex taste; combined with a variety of other factors such as sight, hearing, reward, and habituation, the sense of taste is formed.

Yet this is only the literal sense of taste. Sight and smell also play a huge role in the taste system. Though taste is originally an evolutionary mechanism to avoid poisonous and rotten foods (bases and acids).

Nowadays, we don’t heat just to survive; we get to eat for pleasure. So with some basic food neurophsych in mind, let’s examine a beer and cheese pairing. Let’s imagine the flavor profiles of a stout with a blue cheese. The light notes of chocolate in a blue cheese meet up with the same notes in the stout and create a literal dessert party in your mouth.

Fun Fact: sweet receptor pathways in the brain yield dopaminergic responses… so it’s literally a “dope” pairing. Next time you break into a cheese or pop a beer, think about all that is happening between the foods hitting your tongue and the inevitable smile on your face after a good pairing.

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