Thursday, April 15, 2004

Seeing Red
The post for today is not the second of our 5 s’es, but rather a comment on a book I have just started to read. It’s The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne. I’m only through the first chapter, Introduction: A Matter of Taste, and I’m ready to put it aside. Why? Well on page 9 the author states “the human tongue doesn’t vary from individual to individual; its anatomical structures are constant.” Really! I guess Mr. Osborne needs to read the extensive literature on human perceptions of taste and odor in wine. As long ago as 1993 Linda Bartoshuk of the Department of Surgery (Otolaryngology) of Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, wrote “Genetic variation in taste ability occurs across and within species. For example, about 25% of humans are relatively unresponsive to a variety of sweet and bitter compounds (non-tasters) while another 25% are unusually responsive (supertasters). Supertasters have about four times as many taste buds as non-tasters and have smaller and more densely packed fungiform papillae.” (Genetic and pathological taste variation: what can we learn from animal models and human disease? Bartoshuk LM., Ciba Found Symp. 1993;179:251-67.) More information can be found on Tim Jacob’s site. Perhaps even more interesting is Dr Bartoshuk’s criticism of the Tongue Map in the same article; “The study of patients with taste disorders (i.e. 'experiments of nature') suggests that the old tongue maps (e.g. sweet on the tip, bitter on the back) that often appear in textbooks are wrong. If they were correct, severing the taste nerves that innervate the front of the tongue would result in a loss of the ability to taste sweet, etc. This does not occur.” Richard Gawel has an interesting discussion of this.

I'm hoping that Mr Osborne's search for an understanding of taste turns out to be better than his ability to do literature searches.