Thanks to our multiple taste buds, we are able to differentiate between four different types of flavors, or even a fifth: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (which means “tasty” in Japanese) ie the taste of “fat”. Thus, all tastes are due to particular combinations of these five primary flavors, which, moreover, are not perceived at the same intensity. As Inserm explains on this subject, “the molecules must be present in a certain quantity to be detected, and this quantity varies according to the category. This is called the threshold of perception. The taste that is perceived the best, that is to say even in very small quantities, is the bitter “.
For several years, researchers have known that women are generally better than men at taste the bitter flavors. Now researchers at the University of Copenhagen suggest that ethnicity may also play a role in a person’s sensitivity to this flavor found for example in endives, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and dark chocolate. Their two scientific studies recently published shows, for example, that the Danes and the Chinese experience this basic taste very differently, and that the reason seems to be linked to a anatomical difference on the surfaces of the tongue of these two groups.
The number of fungiform papillae differs from one ethnic group to another
“Our studies show that the vast majority of Chinese subjects are more sensitive to bitter tastes than Danish subjects. We also see a link between the prominence of bitter taste and the number of small bumps, called papillae, on a person’s tongue, ”says Prof. Wender Bredie of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Sciences. Using a new artificial intelligence method, the researchers analyzed the number of so-called “fungiform” papillae that is, mushroom-shaped on the languages of 152 participants, half of whom were Danish and the other half Chinese. These are located on the tip and edges of the tongue.
The fungiform papillae are known to contain a large part taste buds (structures fundamental to the perception of taste called taste buds) and play a central role in food and taste experiences. “To appreciate the importance of taste buds in food preferences across ethnic groups, it is important to know more about their distribution, size and quantity,” says the scientific team. Experience has shown that Chinese participants had more of these taste buds than Danish subjects, a result which the researchers say explains why the Chinese are better at tasting bitter flavors.
Differences also in the texture of the food
However, scientists stress that larger participant cohorts need to be examined before determining whether these differencesbetween the Danes and the Chinese are valid at the general population level. But these first results are important since a better knowledge of the differences in taste impressions is essential for the development of foods. According to Prof. Wender Bredie, “It is important for Danish food producers who export to Asia to know that Asian and Danish consumers probably have different tastes for the same product. This should be taken into account when developing products. ”
But the researchers point out that genetics is only one of many factors that influence our food experience. Another important factor concerns personal preferences, including with regard to texture of a food. “Think, for example, of the difference between snacking on crispy chips in a newly opened bag and eating soggy chips in an open bag the day before. Here, many Danes would probably prefer the crispy to soft texture, even if the taste is similar. ”, They add. According to their studies, there seems to be a difference between Danish and Chinese subjects on this point as well.
Indeed, while the vast majority of Chinese participants (77%) preferred to consume foods that did not require much chewing, the reverse is also true for Danish subjects. Thus, among the Danes, 73% of them preferred to eat foods with a harder consistency, that is to say which require to be bitten and chewed well: rye bread and carrots for example. The reason for this difference remains unknown, but researchers suspect that it stems from differencesin food culture within a country and how we learn to eat. “Studies don’t show that the shape of the tongue makes a difference,” they conclude.