What Are the 5 Tastes?

What Are the 5 Tastes?

They’re not a Doo Wop group!  The 5 tastes are taste sensations that can be categorized into five basic tastes of: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent. Taste is important because it senses both harmful and beneficial foods, called adversive or appetitive. For example, Sweetness helps to identify energy-rich foods, while bitterness serves as a warning sign of poisons.

The human tongue is covered with thousands of tiny bumps invisible to the naked eye. They are called papillae. Each of these papillae contain hundreds of taste buds. Between 2000 and 5000 taste buds live on the tongue, with others located on the roof, sides, back of the mouth and in the throat. Each taste bud contains 50 to 100 taste receptor cells. This is one busy organ.

Taste sensitivity is a critical element in creating meal variety and taste satisfaction. The practice of blending different tastes is native to many cultural cooking styles, and offers us a greater sense of variety, while enhancing taste-appeal and better digestion.

The underlying principle of the five tastes theory is that opposite flavors can be complementary. For example, when you eat a meal including varied tastes, you tend to feel more satisfied due to the array of taste, reducing later tendencies for snacking or sweet cravings. The five taste theory teaches us to balance our food tastes more effectively by identifying the most dominant flavor, and if it’s excessive, balance it out with other tastes. For example, the popular combination of garbanzo beans and sesame seed paste, also known as “hummus,” contains pungent garlic, sour lemon and the salted taste of either soy sauce or salt and sometimes the spice taste of paprika. These ingredients help to balance the oil content while making this spread a more satisfying snack or meal addition due to its variety of tastes.


Sweetness is a basic taste most commonly perceived when eating foods rich in sugars. Sweet tastes are universally regarded as a pleasurable experience, except perhaps in excess. Fructose is sweeter than glucose and sucrose. This has made possible the production of sugar syrups with the sweetness and certain other properties of sucrose starting from starch. In addition to sugars like sucrose, many other chemical compounds are sweet, including aldehydes, ketones, and sugar alcohols. Some are sweet at very low concentrations, allowing their use as non-caloric sugar substitutes. Such non-sugar sweeteners include saccharin and aspartame.


Sourness is the taste that detects acidity.  The most common food group that contains naturally sour foods is fruit, such as lemon, grape, orange, and sometimes melon. Wine also usually has a sour tinge, and if not kept correctly, milk will spoil and develop a sour taste. Children tend to enjoy sour flavors more than adults,  and sour candy is popular in North America including Lemon drops, Shock Tarts and sour versions of Skittles and Starburst. Many of these candies contain citric acid.


Adding salt to foods helps certain molecules in those foods release into the air, which helps spread the aromas of the food, which is important in our perception of taste. Salt also has been shown to help suppress the bitter taste.  Adding a bit of salt not only increases your salty taste perception, but also decreases your bitter taste perception in any given food (which is why it is often sprinkled on grape fruit before eating). Adding salt to sweet things, will help balance out the taste a bit by making the perceived flavor, for instance of sugary candies or lemons, less one dimensional. Who doesn’t like the taste of sweet and salty popcorn? Or sweet and salty caramel chocolate?!


Bitterness is the most sensitive of the tastes, and is perceived as unpleasant, sharp, or disagreeable, but it is sometimes desirable and intentionally added via various bittering agents. Common bitter foods and beverages include coffee, unsweetened cocoa, South American mate, olives, citrus peel, dandelion greens, wild chicory, and escarole. The ethanol in alcoholic beverages tastes bitter, as do the additional bitter ingredients found in some alcoholic beverages including hops in beer and orange in bitters. Quinine is also known for its bitter taste and is found in tonic water. Bitterness is of interest to those who study evolution, since a large number of natural bitter compounds are known to be toxic.


The pungent taste can be found in spicy foods and many herbs and spices. It is usually created by the presence of aromatic volatile oils, resins, and mustard glycosides that stimulate the tissues and nerve endings of the mouth with a sensation of heat.  It is the condition of having a strong, sharp smell or taste that is often so strong that it is unpleasant. Pungency is the technical term used by scientists to refer to the characteristic of food commonly referred to as spiciness or hotness and sometimes heat, which is found in foods such as chili peppers.

Click here to find out about sweet and sour taste sensations…!

© Verne Varona


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5 thoughts on “What Are the 5 Tastes?”

  • Ditto that comment on salt and sweetness, It is commonplace in some asian cultures to out a small sprinkle of salt on pineapple to bring out the sweetness. Also the pineaplle is cut into wedges length wise instead of rings. That way you get the sweet and sour.

  • Interesting ideas here and a great reminder to make some more home made humus!
    This five taste theory makes so much sense to me. I can relate in saying I’m much more satisfied when a variety of flavors are in my meals. Thanks for the info!

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