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Relish the Taste of Food

By Dr. Ritu Kinra

Many of us take our sense of taste for granted, but a taste disorder can have a negative effect on a person’s health and quality of life.


Our ability to taste occurs when tiny molecules released by chewing, drinking, or digesting our food stimulates special sensory cells in the mouth and throat. These taste cells, or gustatory cells, are clustered within the taste buds of the tongue and roof of the mouth, and along the lining of the throat. Many of the small bumps on the tip of your tongue contain taste buds. At birth, we have about 10,000 taste buds, but after age 50, we may start to lose them.

When the taste cells are stimulated, they send messages through three specialized taste nerves to the brain, where specific tastes are identified. Each taste cell expresses a receptor, which responds to one of at least five basic taste qualities: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Umami, or savory, is the taste we get from glutamate, which is found in chicken broth, meat extracts, and some cheeses. A common misconception is that taste cells that respond to different tastes are found in separate regions of the tongue. In humans, the different types of taste cells are scattered throughout the tongue.

Taste quality is just one aspect of how we experience a certain food. When we eat, the sensations from the five taste qualities, together with the sensations from the common chemical sense and the sensations of heat, cold, and texture, combine with a food’s aroma to produce a perception of flavor. It is flavor that lets us know whether we are eating a pear or an apple.

Many people who think they have a taste disorder actually have a problem with smell. When we chew, aromas are released that activate our sense of smell by way of a special channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose. If this channel is blocked, such as when our noses are stuffed up by a cold or flu, odors cannot reach sensory cells in the nose that are stimulated by smells. As a result, much of our enjoyment of flavor is lost. Without smell, foods tend to taste bland and have no flavor.

What are the taste disorders?
The most common taste disorder is phantom taste perception; that is, a lingering, often unpleasant taste even though you have nothing in your mouth. We also can experience a reduced ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, a condition called hypogeusia. Some people cannot detect any tastes, which is called ageusia. True taste loss, however, is rare. Most often, people are experiencing a loss of smell instead of a loss of taste.

In other disorders of the chemical senses, an odor, a taste, or a flavor may be distorted. Dysgeusia is a condition in which a foul, salty, rancid, or metallic taste sensation will persist in the mouth. Dysgeusia is sometimes accompanied by burning mouth syndrome, a condition in which a person experiences a painful burning sensation in the mouth. Although it can affect anyone, burning mouth syndrome is most common in middle-aged and older women.

What causes taste disorders?
Some people are born with taste disorders, but most develop them after an injury or illness. Among the causes of taste problems are:

  • Upper respiratory and middle ear infections

  • Radiation therapy for cancers of the head and neck

  • Exposure to certain chemicals, such as insecticides and some medications, including some common antibiotics and antihistamines

  • Head injury

  • Some surgeries to the ear, nose, and throat (e.g., third molar—wisdom tooth—extraction and middle ear surgery)

  • Poor oral hygiene and dental problems

How are taste disorders diagnosed?
Both taste and smell disorders are diagnosed by an otolaryngologist, a doctor of the ear, nose, throat, head, and neck. An otolaryngologist can determine the extent of your taste disorder by measuring the lowest concentration of a taste quality that you can detect or recognize.

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