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The Five Basic Tastes

Taste goes beyond "sweet" and "sour." It even goes beyond food.

Source: heidelbergerin/pixabay

Eating consciously centers us in the moment and enhances our daily lives with the sensual pleasures of taste sensations and textures.

The five basic tastes—sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami—result from a chemical reaction between stimuli (food) in the mouth reacting with receptors (taste buds).

Sweetness, which most people find pleasurable, is produced by the presence of sugars. It can come straight from the tree, like crunchy fresh apples (of so many varieties, from sweet to tart), or may be baked with sugar to bubbling sweetness in an apple pie.

Bitterness, sometimes perceived as sharp or unpleasant, is found in drinks like coffee and tonic water (quinine) and foods like citrus peel and unsweetened cocoa, as well as certain greens, such as dandelion, chicory, and escarole.

Sourness is the taste that detects acidity, as in vinegar. Saltiness is produced primarily by the presence of sodium ions, found in foods from lox to potato chips.

Umami is a Japanese word referring to a savory, pungent, meaty taste. While it seems to defy definition, umami is often translated as “deliciousness” or “essence,” and is characteristic of cheese, soy sauce, and many Asian foods. Some call it “the other pleasant taste,” along with sweetness.

According to Adam Hadhazy in a 2011 article on, there are seven tastes vying to be the sixth taste: calcium, kokumi, piquance, coolness, metallicity, fat, and carbon dioxide. The jury's still out.

With practice, you’ll find a vocabulary for writing about taste and taking descriptions of food beyond “delicious.” You'll discover that writing about the smell, texture, and sound of food can help us taste it. Above all, particular foods open doors to memory, story, and imagination.

Taste is a broader topic than food. Think about what it’s like to lick your lover’s skin, chew a blade of summer grass, or taste the salty ocean air. Sense what it’s like to bite down on a piece of aluminum foil. It may not exactly a taste, but a sensation we can imagine, even if we’ve never experienced it.

Writing prompt: Write about a childhood memory of food.

Copyright © 2019 by Laura Deutsch

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