The Elements of Taste: How Many Are There?


What is the number of tastes or flavors we have? Is it five, as most Chinese believe? None, as the ancient Taoists asserted? Four, as Western science traditionally claims? Recently, umami has been added to the traditional four: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter (the Chinese added another: spicy or pungent). Aristotle and Raghavan Iyer (of India) thought there were seven components of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent, pungent, and harsh. In 2001 Gary Kunz and Peter Kaminsky argued for fourteen in their book. Not to be outdone, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin thought the number of tastes is infinite, because each one is unique. Some recent studies by Richard Mattes on rats show that fats do have taste and can be chemically detected in their blood, so we may be adding a sixth component to the scientific perspective: fat. The number of elements continues to expand with the development of analysis and experimentation of the gustatory experience. Many of these elements are shared by the world cuisines that tell us something about human nature or constitution.