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


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@rentonreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.rentonreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Life

Founder and co-owner of Red Tea Room Donna Wong puts the finishing touch on their most popular dessert— Lemon Meringue Glacée. Photo by Haley Ausbun.
Renton catering company pivots during pandemic

The Red Tea Room Catering’s move to takeout helped keep the company going— and get closer to neighbors

Courtesy of Lindbergh High School.
Congrats to the Class of 2020— virtual ceremony June 15

Students were also celebrated using walk-up ceremonies at Renton High School, Lindbergh High School, Hazen High School and Talley Sr. High School

TLG Motion Pictures CEO Erik Bernard and TLG founder Courtney LeMarco on a set. Photo courtesy TLG Motion Pictures.
Local production company seeking film, TV pitches from young minority creatives

The Big Pitch competition, put on by TLG Motion Pictures (“Hoarders”), started about six months ago.

Photo by Haley Ausbun
                                A woman checks out jars of honey and jam at the Renton Farmers Market in 2018. This year social distancing guidelines are changing the look of the market.
Renton Farmers Market is back June 9

The 19th season of the market will look a little different due to social distancing guidelines

Relay for Life of South King County moves online

American Cancer Society donations to be taken during May 30 virtual gathering

Auburn Symphony Orchestra announces 2020-21 season

Begins with Summer Series scheduled to start June 21

Medic One Foundation’s Gratitude Meals offer support to first responders, local businesses

The initiative provides hearty lunches to first responders staffing the COVID-19 testing sites as they work to test their colleagues.

‘Don’t assume it can’t happen to you’

Federal Way resident Evelyn Allcorn shares story of her husband’s battle with COVID-19 after he tested positive on March 28.

Auburn dance studio finds creative solutions to keep going during COVID-19

Pacific Ballroom Dance moves to online classes; group returned home early from national competition

Photo by Haley Ausbun
                                Boon Boona Coffee in downtown Renton is well-known for its large cafe space, but owner Efrem Fesaha has found a creative way to keep people to to-go orders only, putting a table right at the door. The order from the Governor hasn’t been easy for small businesses in Renton, and many are just taking it day to day and hoping for financial relief from local and regional leaders.
Renton communities reach out during shut-in

Local organizations, volunteers and businesses try to make the best of quarantine

Renton and AARP team up for seniors

New fitness park to funded and will open late in the summer

Schindler’s legacy bounces along at Baden

CEO of Baden Sports died unexpectedly in February