Ion the Taste Bud Prize: Salt


“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. Matthew 5:13

There’s no denying it: A dash of salt makes food taste better. But how does sodium chloride, or NaCL, actually work on the tongue?

In pursuit of a sodium-free or sodium-reduced diet, knowing how salt works on our taste buds can be helpful. By better understanding the chemistry of taste and how we perceive it, we can go about seeking alternative ways to make our food taste fantastic, while avoiding sodium; a mineral most of us are consuming too much of.

Flavour: It’s all in your mind

Our tongues are covered in taste buds that can detect 5 distinct flavours. Each taste bud is made up of about 50 gustatory receptor cells, each one being a chemoreceptor that sends a response to chemical stimuli into the brain and the brain in turn forms what we humans perceive as flavor, or gustatory perception. There are other sensory influences as well, including touch, texture and especially smell, or olfactory perception. It’s also thought that salt helps molecules to release into the air, which is why salt makes food odours stronger as well as improving their taste.

Biology tells us that there are basically five kinds of flavor receptors on the human tongue. The five tastes that can be perceived are bitter, sweet, sour, salty and umami. Of these, bitterness is the most sensitive, and it’s been shown that the mineral sodium chloride, or what’s commonly known as table salt, blocks the bitter flavor. Salt also makes sweetness taste less sweet, and works with sourness to better balance flavours. That’s why salt is such a powerful flavor enhancer, and it also has its own flavor that is appealing to human taste buds.

Ion the prize

Saltiness is produced by the presence of sodium ions in food – these pass directly through ion channels in the tongue. There are other members of the alkali metals group that also make food taste salty – such as lithium and potassium, the main ingredient in most salt substitutes – but none work as well as salt.

By suppressing the unpleasant bitter tastes in food (such as certain raw vegetables), salt makes dishes more appetizing.

Salt has been used by humans for culinary ends for thousands of years – the word “salad” comes from an ancient Roman practice of salting bitter greens to make them more palatable.

In our time, however, we have access to every flavouring agent under the sun, not to mention cooking methods for every ingredient. Sodium ions are hardly the only game in town when it comes to making food tasty!

Happy as a clam eating salt?

An ordinary clam doing what appears to be an extraordinarily strange act has made it a celebrity, as thousands of people have watched the creature lap up a pinch of salt. Amazing? Yes. But if you know a thing or two about clams,  you’ll realize that they’re not all tongue. Fact is, this clam is just trying to make a move. That’s his entire body moving across that table. Still, it’s impressive.

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