A new discovery: could there be a sixth taste?

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Remember that zesty tingle on your tongue when you taste a lemon?

Or how a piece of candy can make your day sweeter? These are classic examples of our taste buds encountering familiar flavors like sour and sweet.

For a long time, we believed our tongues could only detect four main tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

But in the early 1900s, a Japanese scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, discovered a fifth taste – umami, describing the savory flavor found in foods like soy sauce and parmesan cheese. This discovery expanded our understanding of taste and the culinary world.

But imagine if we had been missing out on another taste all this time? Scientists from USC Dornsife College have recently stumbled upon a fascinating find that suggests our tongues might actually be able to taste something else – a possible sixth taste related to ammonium chloride, an ingredient found in some traditional candies.

Subheading: The Surprising Secret of Scandinavian Candy

If you ever travel to northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, you might come across a popular candy known as salt licorice.

This isn’t your typical sweet treat; it contains a special ingredient known as salmiak salt or ammonium chloride, giving it a distinctive flavor that locals adore but might surprise newcomers.

For decades, scientists noticed that our tongues have a strong response to ammonium chloride but couldn’t figure out exactly why. What was it about this particular ingredient that our taste buds were detecting so sharply?

That’s where our new discovery comes into play.

Led by neuroscientist Emily Liman, the research team from USC has been digging deep into the world of taste, trying to decode the secrets of our taste buds and their reactions to different flavors.

Subheading: A Taste Adventure From Acid to Ammonium

The team was particularly interested in a protein called OTOP1, previously found to be responsible for helping us taste sour flavors.

To understand how it works, think of how a lemon makes your face pucker up. This is because it contains acids, which have something called hydrogen ions.

When these ions enter our taste cells via the OTOP1 protein, we experience that familiar tartness.

Curious minds in science wondered if there might be a connection between this sour-detecting protein and the mysterious reaction our tongues have to ammonium chloride.

To explore this, they conducted experiments, adding a gene into human cells in a lab so that they would produce the OTOP1 protein.

When they exposed these modified cells to ammonium chloride, something exciting happened – they reacted strongly, just like they would to acid, giving us our first clue that OTOP1 might be the key to detecting this potential sixth taste.

What’s even more fascinating is that when they tested this on live mice, the results echoed their initial findings.

When given the choice between plain water and water with ammonium chloride, mice with a functional OTOP1 protein avoided the ammonium solution, indicating they could taste it and didn’t like it.

Those without it showed no preference, providing a strong hint that OTOP1 was the secret ingredient in recognizing this taste.

Emily and her team speculate that being able to taste ammonium chloride might be an evolved trait to help creatures avoid harmful substances.

Ammonium is found in certain waste products and can be toxic, so it makes sense that organisms might develop a way to detect it and steer clear.

Wrapping Up The Flavorsome Journey

This discovery sets the stage for more thrilling adventures into the world of flavors.

With further research, we might uncover even more hidden tastes that our tongues can detect, expanding our culinary horizons and giving chefs new avenues to explore in their creations.

It’s a reminder that the world of science always holds new surprises, opening up realms we might have never imagined.

The potential addition of a sixth taste could not only reshape our understanding of our sensory experiences but also bring about new, exciting innovations in the food industry, from creating novel recipes to developing products that cater to our newly understood taste capabilities.

In an era where culinary arts continually blend with scientific innovation, who knows what new tastes the future might unveil?

As science continues to peel back the layers of our sensory experiences, we await with bated breath – and eager taste buds – for the next delicious discovery.

The research findings can be found in Nature Communications.

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Source: University of Southern California