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7.4: Taste and Smell

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    Taste and Smell

    Both taste and odor stimuli are molecules taken in from the environment. Taste and smell are both abilities to sense chemicals, so taste and olfactory (odor) receptors are chemoreceptors. Both types of chemoreceptors send nerve impulses to the brain along sensory nerves, and the brain “tells” us what we are tasting or smelling. A distinction between the two is that taste chemoreceptors detect chemicals in fluid (saliva and the liquids in the food and beverages we consume) whereas olfactory chemoreceptors detect chemicals in the air. Smell is an important part of what we perceive as the flavor of the food and drink we consume, and we have many more different types of olfactory chemoreceptors than smell chemoreceptors.

    Taste, also called gustation, and smell, also called olfaction, are the most interconnected senses in that both involve molecules of the stimulus entering the body and bonding to receptors. Smell lets an animal sense the presence of food other chemicals in the environment that can impact their survival. Similarly, the sense of taste allows animals to discriminate between types of foods. While the value of a sense of smell is obvious, what is the value of a sense of taste? Different tasting foods have different attributes, both helpful and harmful. For example, sweet-tasting substances tend to be highly caloric, which could be necessary for survival in lean times. Bitterness is associated with toxicity, and sourness is associated with spoiled food. Salty foods are valuable in maintaining homeostasis by helping the body retain water and by providing ions necessary for cells to function.

    Both tasting abilities and sense of smell change with age. In humans, the senses decline dramatically by age 50 and continue to decline. A child may find a food to be too spicy, whereas an elderly person may find the same food to be bland and unappetizing.

    Taste (Gustation)

    The primary tastes detected by humans are sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. The first four tastes need little explanation. The identification of umami as a fundamental taste occurred fairly recently—it was identified in 1908 by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda while he worked with seaweed broth, but it was not widely accepted as a taste that could be physiologically distinguished until many years later. Umami is a Japanese word that means “delicious taste,” and is often translated to mean savory. The taste of umami, also known as savoriness, is attributable to the taste of the amino acid L-glutamate. In fact, monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is often used in cooking to enhance the savory taste of certain foods. What is the adaptive value of being able to distinguish umami? Savory substances tend to be high in protein. Very recent research has suggested that there may also be a sixth taste for fats, or lipids.

    Gustation is the special sense associated with the tongue. A taste bud is a cluster of gustatory receptors (taste cells) that are located within the bumps on the tongue called papillae (singular = papilla) (illustrated in Figures \(\PageIndex{2}\) - Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). The surface of the tongue, along with the rest of the oral cavity, is lined by a stratified squamous epithelium. The papillae contain the structures for gustatory transduction. There are several structurally distinct papillae. Filiform papillae, which are located across the tongue, are tactile, providing friction that helps the tongue move substances, and contain no taste cells. In contrast, fungiform papillae, which are located mainly on the anterior two-thirds of the tongue, each contain one to eight taste buds and also have receptors for pressure and temperature. The large circumvallate papillae contain up to 100 taste buds and form a V near the posterior margin of the tongue. Within the structure of the papillae are taste buds that contain specialized gustatory receptor cells for the transduction of taste stimuli. Taste receptor cells make contact with chemicals in food through tiny openings called taste pores. When certain chemicals bind with taste receptor cells, it generates nerve impulses that travel through afferent nerves to the CNS. There are separate taste receptors for sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory or meaty) tastes. These receptor cells are sensitive to the chemicals contained within foods that are ingested, and they release neurotransmitters based on the amount of the chemical in the food. Neurotransmitters from the gustatory cells can activate sensory neurons in the facial, glossopharyngeal, and vagus cranial nerves. You can see a diagram of a taste receptor cell and related structures in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\).

    The left panel shows the image of a tongue with callouts that show magnified views of different parts of the tongue. The top right panel shows a micrograph of the circumvallate papilla, and the bottom right panel shows the structure of a taste bud.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Tongue The tongue is covered with small bumps, called papillae, which contain taste buds that are sensitive to chemicals in ingested food or drink. Different types of papillae are found in different regions of the tongue. The taste buds contain specialized gustatory receptor cells that respond to chemical stimuli dissolved in the saliva. These receptor cells activate sensory neurons that are part of the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves. LM × 1600. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

    Taste bud

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Taste receptor cells are in taste buds on the tongue. Taste pore exposes these cells into the oral cavity. Basal cells are not involved in tasting but differentiate into taste receptor cells.

    An illustration shows small, filiform papillae scattered across the front two thirds of the tongue. Larger circumvallate papillae form an inverted V at the back of the tongue. Medium-sized fungiform papillae are shown scattered across the back two thirds of the tongue. Foliate papillae form ridges on the back edges of the tongue. A micrograph shows a cross-section of a tongue in which the foliate papillae can be seen as square protrusions about 200 microns across and deep.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): (a) Foliate, circumvallate, and fungiform papillae are located on different regions of the tongue. (b) Foliate papillae are prominent protrusions on this light micrograph. (credit a: modification of work by NCI; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

    In addition to those two types of chemically and mechanically sensitive papillae are foliate papillae—leaf-like papillae located in parallel folds along the edges and toward the back of the tongue, as seen in the Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) micrograph. Foliate papillae contain about 1,300 taste buds within their folds. Finally, there are circumvallate papillae, which are wall-like papillae in the shape of an inverted “V” at the back of the tongue. Each of these papillae is surrounded by a groove and contains about 250 taste buds.

    Each taste bud’s taste cells are replaced every 10 to 14 days. These are elongated cells with hair-like processes called microvilli at the tips that extend into the taste bud pore (illustrate in Figure 12.2.4). Food molecules (tastants) are dissolved in saliva, and they bind with and stimulate the receptors on the microvilli. The receptors for tastants are located across the outer portion and front of the tongue, outside of the middle area where the filiform papillae are most prominent.

    The Five Tastes

    Salty taste is simply the perception of sodium ions (Na+) in the saliva. When you eat something salty, the salt crystals dissociate into the component ions Na+ and Cl, which dissolve into the saliva in your mouth. The Na+ concentration becomes high outside the gustatory cells, creating a strong concentration gradient that drives the diffusion of the ion into the cells. The entry of Na+ into these cells results in the depolarization of the cell membrane and the generation of a receptor potential.

    Sour taste is the perception of H+ concentration (acidity). Just as with sodium ions in salty flavors, these hydrogen ions enter the cell and trigger depolarization. Sour flavors are, essentially, the perception of acids in our food. Increasing hydrogen ion concentrations in the saliva (lowering saliva pH) triggers progressively stronger graded potentials in the gustatory cells. For example, orange juice—which contains citric acid—will taste sour because it has a pH value of approximately 3. Of course, it is often sweetened so that the sour taste is masked.

    The first two tastes (salty and sour) are triggered by the cations Na+ and H+. The other tastes result from food molecules binding to a G protein–coupled receptor. A G protein signal transduction system ultimately leads to depolarization of the gustatory cell. The sweet taste is the sensitivity of gustatory cells to the presence of glucose dissolved in the saliva. Other monosaccharides such as fructose, or artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet™), saccharine, or sucralose (Splenda™) also activate the sweet receptors. The affinity for each of these molecules varies, and some will taste sweeter than glucose because they bind to the G protein–coupled receptor differently.

    Bitter taste is similar to sweet in that food molecules bind to G protein–coupled receptors. However, there are a number of different ways in which this can happen because there are a large diversity of bitter-tasting molecules. Some bitter molecules depolarize gustatory cells, whereas others hyperpolarize gustatory cells. Likewise, some bitter molecules increase G protein activation within the gustatory cells, whereas other bitter molecules decrease G protein activation. The specific response depends on which molecule is binding to the receptor.

    One major group of bitter-tasting molecules are alkaloids. Alkaloids are nitrogen containing molecules that are commonly found in bitter-tasting plant products, such as coffee, hops (in beer), tannins (in wine), tea, and aspirin. By containing toxic alkaloids, the plant is less susceptible to microbe infection and less attractive to herbivores.

    Therefore, the function of bitter taste may primarily be related to stimulating the gag reflex to avoid ingesting poisons. Because of this, many bitter foods that are normally ingested are often combined with a sweet component to make them more palatable (cream and sugar in coffee, for example). The highest concentration of bitter receptors appear to be in the posterior tongue, where a gag reflex could still spit out poisonous food.

    The taste known as umami is often referred to as the savory taste. Like sweet and bitter, it is based on the activation of G protein–coupled receptors by a specific molecule. The molecule that activates this receptor is the amino acid L-glutamate. Therefore, the umami flavor is often perceived while eating protein-rich foods. Not surprisingly, dishes that contain meat are often described as savory.

    Once the gustatory cells are activated by the taste molecules, they release neurotransmitters onto the dendrites of sensory neurons. These neurons are part of the facial and glossopharyngeal cranial nerves, as well as a component within the vagus nerve dedicated to the gag reflex. The facial nerve connects to taste buds in the anterior third of the tongue. The glossopharyngeal nerve connects to taste buds in the posterior two thirds of the tongue. The vagus nerve connects to taste buds in the extreme posterior of the tongue, verging on the pharynx, which are more sensitive to noxious stimuli such as bitterness.

    Smell (Olfaction)

    Like taste, the sense of smell, or olfaction, is also responsive to chemical stimuli. All odors that we perceive are molecules in the air we breathe. If a substance does not release molecules into the air from its surface, it has no smell. And if a human or other animal does not have a receptor that recognizes a specific molecule, then that molecule has no smell. Humans have about 350 olfactory receptor subtypes that work in various combinations to allow us to sense about 10,000 different odors. Compare that to mice, for example, which have about 1,300 olfactory receptor types, and therefore probably sense more odors. Both odors and tastes involve molecules that stimulate specific chemoreceptors. Although humans commonly distinguish taste as one sense and smell as another, they work together to create the perception of flavor. A person’s perception of flavor is reduced if he or she has congested nasal passages.

    The olfactory receptor neurons are located in a small region within the superior nasal cavity (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)). This region is referred to as the olfactory epithelium and contains bipolar sensory neurons. Each olfactory sensory neuron has dendrites that extend from the apical surface of the epithelium into the mucus lining the cavity. As airborne molecules are inhaled through the nose, they pass over the olfactory epithelial region and dissolve into the mucus. These odorant molecules bind to proteins that keep them dissolved in the mucus and help transport them to the olfactory dendrites. The odorant–protein complex binds to a receptor protein within the cell membrane of an olfactory dendrite. These receptors are G protein–coupled, and will produce a graded membrane potential in the olfactory neurons. There are millions of olfactory receptors, which sense chemicals in the air. Unlike taste receptors, which can sense only five different tastes, olfactory receptors can sense hundreds of different odors and send signals to the olfactory bulb of the brain. Did you ever notice that food seems to have less taste when you have a stuffy nose? This occurs because the sense of smell contributes to the sense of taste, and a stuffy nose interferes with the ability to smell.

    Illustration A shows a bipolar neuron, which has two dendrites. Illustration B shows a cross section of a human head. The nostrils lead to the nasal cavity, which sits above the mouth. The olfactory bulb is just above the olfactory epithelium that lines the nasal cavity. Neurons run from the bulb into the nasal cavity.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The yellow structures inside this drawing of the nasal passages are an olfactory nerve with many nerve endings. The nerve endings are located at the roof of the nasal cavity. The nerve endings sense chemicals in the air as it passes through the nasal cavities. (a) bipolar olfactory neurons extend from (b) the olfactory epithelium, where olfactory receptors are located, to the olfactory bulb. (credit: modification of work by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator; C. Carl Jaffe, MD, cardiologist)

    The axon of an olfactory neuron extends from the basal surface of the epithelium, through an olfactory foramen in the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone, and into the brain. The group of axons called the olfactory tract connect to the olfactory bulb on the ventral surface of the frontal lobe. From there, the axons split to travel to several brain regions. Some travel to the cerebrum, specifically to the primary olfactory cortex that is located in the inferior and medial areas of the temporal lobe. Others project to structures within the limbic system and hypothalamus, where smells become associated with long-term memory and emotional responses. This is how certain smells trigger emotional memories, such as the smell of food associated with one’s birthplace. Smell is the one sensory modality that does not synapse in the thalamus before connecting to the cerebral cortex. This intimate connection between the olfactory system and the cerebral cortex is one reason why smell can be a potent trigger of memories and emotion.The nasal epithelium, including the olfactory cells, can be harmed by airborne toxic chemicals. Therefore, the olfactory neurons are regularly replaced within the nasal epithelium, after which the axons of the new neurons must find their appropriate connections in the olfactory bulb. These new axons grow along the axons that are already in place in the cranial nerve.

    Reception and Transduction

    Odorants (odor molecules) enter the nose and dissolve in the olfactory epithelium, the mucosa at the back of the nasal cavity (as illustrated in Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\)). The olfactory epithelium is a collection of specialized olfactory receptors in the back of the nasal cavity that spans an area about 5 cm2 in humans. Recall that sensory cells are neurons. An olfactory receptor, which is a dendrite of a specialized neuron, responds when it binds certain molecules inhaled from the environment by sending impulses directly to the olfactory bulb of the brain. Humans have about 12 million olfactory receptors, distributed among hundreds of different receptor types that respond to different odors. Twelve million seems like a large number of receptors, but compare that to other animals: rabbits have about 100 million, most dogs have about 1 billion, and bloodhounds—dogs selectively bred for their sense of smell—have about 4 billion. The overall size of the olfactory epithelium also differs between species, with that of bloodhounds, for example, being many times larger than that of humans.

    Olfactory neurons are bipolar neurons (neurons with two processes from the cell body). Each neuron has a single dendrite buried in the olfactory epithelium, and extending from this dendrite are 5 to 20 receptor-laden, hair-like cilia that trap odorant molecules. The sensory receptors on the cilia are proteins, and it is the variations in their amino acid chains that make the receptors sensitive to different odorants. Each olfactory sensory neuron has only one type of receptor on its cilia, and the receptors are specialized to detect specific odorants, so the bipolar neurons themselves are specialized. When an odorant binds with a receptor that recognizes it, the sensory neuron associated with the receptor is stimulated. Olfactory stimulation is the only sensory information that directly reaches the cerebral cortex, whereas other sensations are relayed through the thalamus.

    The top left panel of this image shows the side view of a person’s face with a cup containing a beverage underneath the nose. The image shows how the aroma of the beverage passes through the nasal cavity. The top right panel shows a detailed ultrastructure of the olfactory bulb. The bottom panel shows a micrograph of the nasal cavity.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): The Olfactory System (a) The olfactory system begins in the peripheral structures of the nasal cavity. (b) The olfactory receptor neurons are within the olfactory epithelium. (c) Axons of the olfactory receptor neurons project through the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone and synapse with the neurons of the olfactory bulb (tissue source: simian). LM × 812. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)


    Disorders of the...

    Olfactory System: Anosmia

    Blunt force trauma to the face, such as that common in many car accidents, can lead to the loss of the olfactory nerve, and subsequently, loss of the sense of smell. This condition is known as anosmia. When the frontal lobe of the brain moves relative to the ethmoid bone, the olfactory tract axons may be sheared apart. Professional fighters often experience anosmia because of repeated trauma to face and head. In addition, certain pharmaceuticals, such as antibiotics, can cause anosmia by killing all the olfactory neurons at once. If no axons are in place within the olfactory nerve, then the axons from newly formed olfactory neurons have no guide to lead them to their connections within the olfactory bulb. There are temporary causes of anosmia, as well, such as those caused by inflammatory responses related to respiratory infections or allergies.

    Loss of the sense of smell can result in food tasting bland. A person with an impaired sense of smell may require additional spice and seasoning levels for food to be tasted. Anosmia may also be related to some presentations of mild depression, because the loss of enjoyment of food may lead to a general sense of despair.

    The ability of olfactory neurons to replace themselves decreases with age, leading to age-related anosmia. This explains why some elderly people salt their food more than younger people do. However, this increased sodium intake can increase blood volume and blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases in the elderly.

    Section Summary

    There are five primary tastes in humans: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Each taste has its own receptor type that responds only to that taste. Tastants enter the body and are dissolved in saliva. Taste cells are located within taste buds, which are found on three of the four types of papillae in the mouth.

    Regarding olfaction, there are many thousands of odorants, but humans detect only about 10,000. Like taste receptors, olfactory receptors are each responsive to only one odorant. Odorants dissolve in nasal mucosa, where they excite their corresponding olfactory sensory cells. When these cells detect an odorant, they send their signals to other structures which ultimately are conveyed to the CNS.


    1. Describe the range of tactile stimuli that are detected in the sense of touch.
    2. Explain why your skin can detect different types of stimuli, such as pressure and temperature.
    3. Describe two ways that the body senses chemicals and the special sense organs that are involved in these senses.
    4. What might be the effect on a person of not being able to perceive taste?
    5. Choose one. Sensory information is sent to the central nervous system via (efferent/afferent) nerves.
    6. Identify a mechanoreceptor used in two different human senses, and describe the type of mechanical stimuli that each one detects.

    How many different taste molecules do taste cells each detect?

    1. one
    2. five
    3. ten
    4. It depends on the spot on the tongue

    Salty foods activate the taste cells by _____.

    1. exciting the taste cell directly
    2. causing hydrogen ions to enter the cell
    3. causing sodium channels to close
    4. binding directly to the receptors

    7.4: Taste and Smell is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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