In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychological Perspectives on Taste

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Psychology Psychological Perspectives on Taste
Emily E. Perszyk, Bob Stewart, Haley R. Roland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0249


The word taste commonly evokes the experience of a robust California red wine, a perfectly seasoned and roasted duck breast, or a decadent Belgian chocolate. In fact, the perceptual experience that accompanies ingestion of food is most correctly termed flavor. Flavor comprises combined elements of olfactory (i.e., retronasal odor), somatosensory (e.g., texture and temperature), and gustatory sensations that attend ingestion. In contrast, taste refers exclusively to the perceptions and behaviors that arise when chemical components of food stimulate the gustatory apparatus of the oral cavity, namely taste receptor cells found within taste buds. Consequent neural activity in taste nerves and taste-related areas of the brain lead to gustatory sensation and perception. There is general agreement that activation of the taste system results in the perception of five unique taste qualities, or basic tastes, in humans: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. It has long been appreciated that perception of these tastes plays a pivotal role in feeding by providing the organism with an appraisal of food nutrient value and/or potential toxicity. Though much remains unknown, our understanding of the gustatory system has burgeoned since 2000. Advances in molecular genetic techniques, for example, provided the launchpad for explosive growth in our understanding of the basic molecular and cellular physiology of taste receptor cells. This information, in turn, has stimulated theoretical, conceptual, and experimental reappraisal of long-standing ideas about the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological bases of taste stimulus coding and perception. Simultaneously, progress in functional brain-imaging technologies permitted non-invasive investigation of the neural pathways and processes involved in taste perception in humans. Results from functional imaging studies have confirmed, extended, and clarified findings from previous psychophysical studies in healthy participants and in patients with peripheral and central nervous system lesions. These studies have also revealed neural correlates of flavor, taste and flavor hedonics, and food-related reward. Combined molecular, behavioral, psychophysical, and imaging data suggest that taste can influence and be influenced by disease. Taste modulates metabolism and contributes to diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. Various diseases and the drugs used to treat them can have strong negative impacts on taste, which can lead to impaired nutrition and diminished quality of life. The reciprocal influences of disease and taste signal the importance of considering this sensory modality in health, nutrition, and food industry policies and practice.

General Overviews

Sources in this section include materials intended for lay audiences, students, researchers, clinicians, and food industry professionals. Stuckey 2012 concentrates squarely on the role of taste perception in food palatability and ingestion and offers an accessible place to begin for the lay reader. Shepherd 2011 is an instructive account of the functional neuroscience of flavor that is both highly readable and accurate. Wolfe, et al. 2017 is rare among sensation and perception texts in providing a chapter dedicated solely to taste. It is brief but informative and accurate and includes coverage of peripheral and central gustatory structure and function, taste psychophysics, genetic variation in taste, and taste preferences and aversions. A more detailed, neuroscientific treatment of basic gustatory structure and function is available in Buck and Bargmann 2012. A number of noteworthy review articles have also appeared in the 2000s. Smith and Margolskee 2001 provides a brief, accessible, and accurate (though somewhat dated) overview of taste. Breslin and Spector 2008 offers a more detailed, comparative overview of taste function in mammals that includes summaries of taste system anatomical and functional organization, taste perception, and affective/hedonic processing of taste. Doty 2012 likewise provides a mechanistic overview of the taste system complemented by discussions of changes in taste across the lifespan and impacts of disease on taste perception. Spector 2000 offers a still-timely critical review that emphasizes the need to verify and contextualize proposed molecular biochemical and neurobiological frameworks of taste by evaluating them against results from studies of taste-guided behavior and taste psychophysics. Two edited reference texts on taste and smell, Hummel and Welge-Lüssen 2006 and Doty 2015, contain broad coverage of taste intended primarily for taste researchers, clinicians, and food scientists. The diverse topics pertinent to taste in these texts range from molecular mechanisms of taste transduction to taste perception, taste in disease, and applications of taste science in commercial and industrial realms.

  • Breslin, P. A. S., and A. C. Spector. 2008. Mammalian taste perception. Current Biology 18.4. R148-R155.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.12.017

    This is a highly readable, well-organized review that covers taste function from molecular physiology to human psychophysics. There is an emphasis on the functional significance of the sense of taste for mammals.

  • Buck, L., and C. Bargmann. 2012. The chemical senses. In Principles of neural science. Edited by E. R. Kandel, J. H. Schwartz, T. M. Jessell, et al., 712–742. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This chapter from the “Bible of Neuroscience” emphasizes molecular, cellular, and systems-level functional organization of both gustatory and olfactory systems.

  • Doty, R. L., ed. 2015. Handbook of olfaction and gustation. 3d ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

    This professional reference text covers the basic science, clinical, and commercial aspects of olfaction and gustation. Chapter contributors are among the foremost authorities in their topical areas.

  • Doty, R. L. 2012. Gustation. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 3.1: 29–46.

    DOI: 10.1002/wcs.156

    Doty offers a clear and concise primer on gustation that covers topics ranging from molecular and cellular physiology of taste cells to gustatory psychophysics and gustatory dysfunction in the clinical setting.

  • Hummel, T., and A. Welge-Lüssen, eds. 2006. Taste and smell: An update. Vol. 63. Basel: Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers.

    This is a professional reference text that covers a wide array of topics in the chemical senses from molecular biology to clinical and industrial/commercial applications of chemosensory science.

  • Shepherd, G. M. 2011. Neurogastronomy: How the brain creates flavor and why it matters. New York: Columbia University Press.

    DOI: 10.7312/shep15910

    Though taste, per se, is not its topical focus, this book provides a comprehensive overview of the multimodal flavor system in the brain and how it integrates with neural systems that regulate food-related affect, reward, and motivation.

  • Smith, D. V., and R. F. Margolskee. 2001. Making sense of taste. Scientific American 284.3: 32–39.

    DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0906–84sp

    Despite some dated content, this highly accessible review paper provides an excellent overview of the basic functional organization of the taste system. It features high-quality illustrations and extensive definitions of gustatory jargon, making it an excellent starting point for those interested in reading more deeply technical material.

  • Spector, A. C. 2000. Linking gustatory neurobiology to behavior in vertebrates. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 24.4: 391–416.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0149-7634(00)00013-0

    This excellent, thought-provoking review serves as something of a cautionary tale about the beguiling allure of reductionistic neuroscience. In it, Spector offers a conceptual (yet workable) framework for establishing stronger explanatory experimental links between proposed molecular and neurobiological mechanisms of taste and the taste-guided behaviors they are implied to underlie.

  • Stuckey, B. 2012. Taste: Surprising stories and science about why food tastes good. New York: Atria Paperback.

    This straightforward, non-technical book provides informative discussions of the basic tastes and how genetic and experiential factors shape taste preferences and may impact nutrition and health. The book’s ability to engage the reader comes perhaps at the expense of complete accuracy.

  • Wolfe, J. M., K. R. Kluender, D. M. Levi, et al. 2017. Sensation and perception. 5th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, an Imprint of Oxford University Press.

    This undergraduate-level text includes a superb chapter (chapter 15) dedicated solely to taste sensation and perception. Beyond that, the entire text is intelligently organized, written in a lucid and accessible style and filled with clear and informative illustrations.

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