Buds and Skittles: A Guide to Tasting

When I asked my students last week to close their eyes, pinch their noses shut and hold out their hands, their cute little clammy paws all shot out ready for whatever I was about to give them. I placed one Skittle in each — I didn’t want to betray their trust immediately —  and asked them to chew it, noses still cinched. They let out signs of approval, noting its sweetness and chewy texture. “Ok, release the noses,” I instructed and still chewing, they gasped with teenager wonder: “Whoa, that’s so cool! I can really taste the purple now.”  They all compared the colors and flavors in their mouths, their conclusions starting my lesson on taste. Our sense of smell is essential to taste. Perhaps a fact we assume or take for granted, it’s pretty cool to see the kids discover this for the first time. Guided by the research from Cornell’s Taste Science Laboratory, I took them through some exercises, like the Skittle sampling, to prove to them how important our sense of smell really is and how complex the process of tasting is, too. While our tongues register temperature and perceive tastes like salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami and fat (some argue that our tongues also detect others like metallic, too), it works in a complex partnership with the nose and brain to trigger memories, identify the specific foods we eat, and establish emotional reactions to that food (good, bad, toxic!).We concluded the lesson with an activity which has become something of an initiation in the Gastronomy class: the staining of the tongues. Apparently the fungiform papillae on the tongue do not absorb blue food coloring. So they pop with pink against the blue and the kids can get a sense of the size and number of their papillae. They proudly march around declaring their taste sensitivity, even though we may or may not be qualified to do so. But it sure is fun and makes for some of the silliest pictures of the year.

If you’d like to see more pictures of the kids from the taste lesson, click here for the portfolio.

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