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How sweet cravings could be linked to an evolutionary quest for survival, and 11 other delectable facts about taste buds.

Easter is fast approaching, which for most of us means indulging in a four day diet of chocolate, chocolate and a bit more chocolate. There’s no doubting its deliciousness, but have you ever considered just what it is about the ultimate sugary indulgence that tickles our taste buds so?

Well, apparently there is evidence to suggest that our sugary cravings have a biological basis, rather than simply being the result of a complete lack of self-control. Scientists believe that our yearning for sweets is a biological preference that may have been designed to ensure our survival. The liking for sweet tastes in our ancient evolution may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods such as breast milk and vitamin rich fruits. What’s more, recent research suggests we crave sweets for their pain-reducing properties.

So there you have it, total validation for your Easter chocolate indulgence! On a more serious note, taste is a fascinating and complex sense that science is only beginning to understand. Here are 11 more facts about your ability to taste that may surprise you.

  1. EVERYONE HAS A DIFFERENT NUMBER OF TASTE BUDS.

The average number of taste buds varies from person to person, between 2,000 and 10,000! Surprisingly, they are not limited to your tongue; they can be found in the roof and walls of your mouth, throat, and oesophagus. As you age, your taste buds become less sensitive, which experts believe may be why foods that you don’t like as a child become palatable to you as an adult.

  1. YOU TASTE WITH YOUR BRAIN.

The moment you bite into a slice of cake, your mouth seems full of flavour, but most of that taste sensation is happening in your brain. More accurately, cranial nerves and taste bud receptors in your mouth send molecules of your food to olfactory nerve endings in the roof of your nose. The molecules bind to these nerve endings, which then signal the olfactory bulb to send smell messages directly to two important cranial nerves, the facial nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve, which communicate with a part of the brain known as the gustatory cortex. As taste and nerve messages move further through the brain, they join up with smell messages to give the sensation of flavour, which feels as if it comes from the mouth.

  1. YOU CAN’T TASTE WELL IF YOU CAN’T SMELL.

When you smell something through your nostrils, the brain registers these sensations as coming from the nose, while smells perceived through the back of the throat activate parts of the brain associated with signals from the mouth. Since much of taste is odour traveling to olfactory receptors in your brain, it makes sense that you won’t taste much at all if you can’t smell.

  1. EATING SWEET FOODS HELPS FORM A MEMORY OF A MEAL.

Eating sweet foods causes the brain to form a memory of a meal, according to a new study in the journal Hippocampus, and researchers believe it can actually help you control eating behaviour. Neurons in the dorsal hippocampus, the part of the brain central to episodic memory, are activated when you eat sweets. Episodic memory is that kind that helps you recall what you experienced at a particular time and place.

  1. SCIENTISTS CAN TURN TASTES ON AND OFF BY ACTIVATING AND SILENCING CLUSTERS OF BRAIN CELLS.

Dedicated taste receptors in the brain have been found for each of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savoury).  Recently, scientists outlined in the journal Nature how they were able to turn specific tastes “on” or “off” in mice, without introducing food, by stimulating and silencing neurons in the brains. For instance, when they stimulated neurons associated with “bitter,” mice made puckering expressions, and could still taste sweet, and vice versa.

  1. YOU CAN TWEAK YOUR TASTE BUDS.

Most of us have had the unfortunate, mouth-puckering experience of drinking perfectly good orange juice after brushing our teeth only to have it taste more like unsweetened lemon juice. Taste buds, it turns out, are sensitive enough that certain compounds in foods and medicines can alter our ability to perceive one of the five common tastes. The foaming agent sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate in most toothpaste seems to temporarily suppress sweetness receptors.

  1. THE SMELL OF HAM CAN MAKE YOUR FOOD “TASTE” SALTIER.

There’s an entire industry that concocts the tastes of the food you buy at the supermarket. Working with phenomena known as phantom aromas or aroma-taste interactions, scientists found that people associate “ham” with salt. So simply adding a subtle “ham-like” scent or subtle flavour to a food can make your brain perceive it as saltier than it actually is. The same concept applies to the scent of vanilla, which people perceive as sweet.

  1. YOUR TASTE BUDS PREFER SAVORY WHEN FLYING.

A study by Cornell University food scientists found that loud, noisy environments, such as when you’re traveling on an aeroplane, compromise your sense of taste. The study found that people traveling on aeroplanes had suppressed sweet receptors and enhanced umami receptors. The German airline Lufthansa confirmed that on flights, passengers ordered nearly as much tomato juice as beer. The study opens the door to new questions about how taste is influenced by more than our own internal circuitry, including our interactions with our environments.

  1. PICKY EATERS MAY BE “SUPERTASTERS.”

The picky eater may have a new excuse to turn down your home-cooked meal: An extreme dislike of aubergine or sensitivity to the slightest hint of onion may mean you are a supertaster—one of 25 percent of people who have extra papillae in your tongue, in essence, a greater number of taste buds, thus receptors.

  1. SOME OF YOUR TASTE PREFERENCES ARE GENETIC.

While your genetics may not explain your love of peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches or rocky road ice cream specifically, there may be code written into your DNA that accounts for your preference for sweet foods or your aversion to certain flavours.

  1. IN FACT, YOUR GENES INFLUENCE WHETHER CORIANDER TASTES LIKE AN HERB OR LIKE SOAP.

There may be no flavour more hotly debated or deeply loathed than the humble coriander herb.  Entire websites and Facebook groups exist extolling dislike for the herb’s “soapy” or “perfumy” flavour, while those who like it simply think it gives a nice kick to their salsa. Researchers at the consumer genetics firm 23andMe identified two common genetic variants linked to people’s “soap” perceptions. The most compelling variant can be found within a cluster of olfactory receptor genes, which influence our sense of smell. One of those genes, OR6A2, encodes a receptor that is highly sensitive to aldehyde chemicals, which coriander contains.

With thanks to mentalfloss.com.

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