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The Five Basic Tastes (and What They Mean)

17 Sep 2021

An infographic of different tongues depicting the different tastes: sweet chocolate, salty salt, sour lemon, bitter arugula, and umami tomato

At Bolay, we pride ourselves on offering foods that aren’t just healthy, but delicious! We’ve worked with a lot of folks in the culinary industry to craft flavor profiles that are fresh and bold. But what does that mean, exactly? Why does your body react like it does to flavors—craving some while rejecting others?

You might be surprised to learn that there is a science to building the perfect flavor profiles.

Building Flavors with the Five Basic Tastes

All flavor profiles are constructed by combining various tastes. That might seem like an elementary and rather basic statement, but the process is actually quite complex. Taste is more than a pleasant or unpleasant experience. It plays a fundamental role in letting us know what foods we should and shouldn’t eat. There are five basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami—and each one sends a specific message.


Sweetness indicates that a food contains sugars (which provide fast energy for your body) and carbohydrates (which replenish your expended energy). The sweet taste is regarded as a pleasurable sensation.


The sour taste indicates the presence of acids in food, letting you know if it is safe to eat. For example, unripe fruit is full of citric acids and sour milk is full of lactic acids, which prevent them from being consumed. In small quantities, sourness can be pleasurable. However, in larger quantities, it’s often a warning to stay away from the food in question.


Salty is the taste marker for sodium, which is vital for regulating the amount of water in your body. Like sourness, salty is a taste that’s pleasurable in small quantities but not in large. Your body requires some salt to function but consuming too much salt can be harmful, so this taste helps ensure you’re taking in the right amount.


Strong bitterness is often a marker for toxins and poisons, so your body will naturally reject them to protect itself from harmful effects. Interestingly, most folks develop a taste for bitterness in minute amounts as they grow older, allowing them to ingest bitter compounds that have a positive effect (such as caffeine).


Umami, or savory taste, is a relatively new addition to the list. It was identified in Japan in 1907 and serves as a marker for proteins. In fact, the term umami is Japanese for “good flavor.” Umami is a pleasurable sensation that encourages you to take in enough proteins for the growth and maintenance of your body.

Other Tastes

The list of tastes is constantly being expanded and refined as experts identify additional sensations felt by the tongue. Some of these additional tastes include pungent (spicy), cool, numb, astringent (harsh), metallic, fat (lipid), and kokumi (hearty). 


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