Dr. Universe explains taste buds

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education column from Washington State University.

  • Thursday, November 22, 2018 11:30am
  • Life
Illustrations by Rob McClurkan

Illustrations by Rob McClurkan

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do you grow new taste buds? I read in a book once that you grow new taste buds every week. I started wondering how and why? I’m hoping you can help me with my question. -Tyra, 10, Jacksonville, NC

Dear Tyra,

You read it right— taste buds can have a lifespan of anywhere from one to two weeks. That’s what I found out from my friend Charles Diako, a food science researcher at Washington State University. Before he explained exactly how and why we grow our taste buds, he told me two important things about them.

First, if you stick out your tongue, you will see a bunch of little bumps. They are not taste buds, but parts called papillae. The taste buds are hidden inside the papillae. Second, he explained, taste buds are actually bundles of taste cells which are like “a gateway to the taste centers in the brain.”

We rely on taste to figure out different traits in foods, like the sweetness of a marshmallow, the sour of a lemon, bitter dark chocolate, salty crackers, or the savory, meaty umami of ripe tomatoes.

Every time we eat or drink something, we are faced with a decision of whether to actually eat it or spit it out, Diako said. Our sense of taste helps us decide if what we eat is delightful or dangerous. In a way, it helps with our survival.

We grow new taste buds for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that taste cells die off after they’ve finished their job. The taste cells, like many cells, can age and when they lose their sensitivity, the body grows new ones.

The second reason we grow new taste buds is sometimes we burn them off with things like hot foods and beverages. The heat can kill our taste buds. If we don’t grow new ones, we would have problems detecting the tastes of food and probably wouldn’t enjoy a meal very much.

Taste buds grow from a class of cells called basal cells, Diako explained. The cells go through a process in which they divide and enter the taste buds. They then develop into one of at least five different taste cell types that help us detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami.

We are growing new taste buds pretty much all the time. Recent studies estimate that we lose about 10 percent of our taste cells every day. Around 20 to 30 percent of them are developing today and about 60 percent are in full use.

“When you sit at the Thanksgiving table and get ready to bite into that turkey, remember what an amazing job your taste buds and brain are doing to help you enjoy every bit of that occasion,” Diako said.

Do you have a favorite food? Does it fall under the category of sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami? For a chance to win a Dr. Universe sticker, send your answer to Dr.Universe@wsu.edu with the subject “taste buds” by the end of November.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

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