Exploring taste

I was talking to my son a couple of weeks ago about how something tasted and realised he had no idea which words to use.  I thought we could combine a discussion about our senses with learning some new words to describe taste.  We talked first about the different senses, and I asked him what he used to taste - he knew it was his tongue.  We also talked a little about the other senses which we'd never really done before.  I asked him what sort of tastes/flavours he liked, and he didn't really seem to be able to answer the question!

Taste words and a selection of foodstuffs

I put five words for the different types of flavour the taste receptors in the taste buds on our tongue detect - sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury) and we read them together.  I then gave him a selection of different things to taste and asked him to try and sort them by which word most closely matched their flavour.

The foods I gave him were:
- Sugar
- Sugar dissolved in water
- Golden syrup
- Salt
- Salt dissolved in water i.e. brine
- Pieces of salted crisp
- Lemon juice
- Vinegar
- Decaf coffee
- 85% dark chocolate
- Dilute solution of monosodium glutamate (i.e. MSG)

I invited him to choose one of the foodstuffs and taste it, and he picked the lemon juice.  I then asked him which word he thought best described it and he chose sweet.  Then he picked the sugar solution and tasted that and decided it was sweeter, so we talked about whether the lemon juice might have had a slightly different flavour.  He thought it did but he wasn't sure which word matched, so I suggested sour.

Looking at the coffee, but he decided to try something else

He was pretty clear about things that were salty, although I don't think he's ever tasted just salt before.  He also matched the sugar and golden syrup correctly.  He was not at all keen on the dark chocolate, and we talked about the right word to describe it being 'bitter'.  He struggled to place the vinegar too, but tasted the lemon juice again and agreed there was something similar about them (they are both acidic and taste sour).

Foods and the taste they matched most closely

He tried the MSG solution and I asked if it tasted meaty, and he thought it did.  It was the only thing I could think of for umami (and indeed I bought a small quantity from a Chinese supermarket a couple of months ago solely for doing this activity - if anyone has any bright ideas for the rest of the pack, other than adding it to Chinese cooking, I'd be grateful for them!).  Once he found out what the brown liquid was (coffee), he wasn't keen on the idea of tasting it as I suspect I've said he won't like my coffee a number of times in the past to dissuade him from trying it.  With the bribery of finishing the bits of crisp if he tried it, he gave it a go and decided it was indeed unpleasant.  I helped him group it with the dark chocolate in the category of 'bitter' before he demolished the crisps.

Hopefully this activity helped him understand a bit more about the words he can use to describe taste, rather than texture (e.g. soft, crunchy) as well as giving us a bit of a talking point about how our bodies sense flavours.  He's used some of the new words for flavours since, although 'bitter' seems to have become interchangeable with 'disgusting'!