Take Me on a Flavor Trip

I was recently invited to a flavor tripping party. Good thing its not the 1960s, or I likely would have assumed that hallucinogenic drugs would be on the menu. Though colorful in name, flavor tripping parties are a cultural manifestation of a demonstration I have utilized dozens of times in my Sensory Psychology courses at the various universities in which I have taught. Students are often elated at my seemingly magical abilities to alter their sense of taste (temporarily). As an educator, I have always been proud of my ability to drive home one of the major tenets of gustatory processing theory, that the five basic tastes can be dissociated in their processing at the level of the taste receptor on the tongue. All that means is that we can play with the taste sensors on your tongue and change your perceptual experience, all without the need to go into your brain and start flipping switches and pressing buttons. Just kidding about the switches and buttons, that’s not how it works anyway.

Before I get into the fun details of the manipulation, I would be remiss if I did not give you an elementary run down of the biology of gustation, or how we taste what we eat. So you have a tongue, right? And at some point in your life you have noticed tiny red bumps on your tongue that you probably casually call “taste buds”. If you haven’t noticed these, you can see them more easily if you brush blue food coloring onto your tongue. They resist the dye and stand out starkly against the now-blue background. If you don’t want to paint your tongue with food dye, you can try eating blue-colored candy; I am partial to blue raspberry ring pops of my 90s childhood, but in all honesty, I am very good at figuring out any way to eat candy in the name of science.

These “taste buds” are actually named papillae, and many actual taste buds live in the walls of the papillae on your tongue. You would need a microscope and someone else’s tongue to see them (or your own freakishly long tongue), but I assure you, they are there. The largest difference in people’s tasting sensitivity lies in the sheer number of these papillae on your tongue. The more you have, the more sensitive to flavor you are, and likely the pickier you are when it comes to what you will and won’t eat. The number of papilla depends solely on your genetic code, so you’re stuck with the number you have. Even if you are like me and can’t wait for your food to cool down enough to eat and constantly burn your tongue, these structures grow back rather quickly. The mouth is one of the fastest healing parts of the body.

When you chew, enzymes in your saliva break down food into smaller chemicals that get shoved into the spaces between your papillae, increasing the likelihood that your taste buds with interact with these chemicals and send relevant information to the brain. This information comes in the form of basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami) and subtle differences in neurochemical firing that seems to produce the myriad of perceptual experiences we have in response to different foods.

Now, back to flavor tripping: There are two required stimuli that must be present in order to experience this phenomenon. First, you must have access to miraculin, a glycoprotein found in the synsepalum dulcificum (or more aptly named, miracle berry) plant native to West Africa. The second requirement is access to sour foods. I like to have the following on hand: lemons, sour candies, grapefruit, white vinegar, and strawberries. Though strawberries aren’t sour, I like to use them as a “control” food to ensure that other taste sensations, aside from sour, are not manipulated by the demonstration. And of course, you can always be creative in your food offerings if this is something you would like to try.

In the US, the easiest way to obtain miraculin is in the form of “miracle berry pills”, available for sale at your favorite online big-box retailer. These pills resemble berry-scented chalk in both texture and flavor, and the user must roll it around on their tongue until it dissolves. What this does is embed the miraculin into the taste buds on your papilla. Then you have 30-60 minutes to experience the “miracle”, or better yet: the manipulation of your gustatory system.

The once sour lemons, sour candies, grapefruit, and white vinegar are replaced by sweeter and more robust versions of themselves. Anything that has a natural sweet component that is likely overshadowed by a sour component, will show this effect. The item in question must have some sweet properties, but those properties need not be perceptible to you until this moment.

Now it is important to note, acids are the chemicals inside foods that make them taste sour, and acids in high concentrations can eat away at bodily tissues, including those in the mouth and digestive tracts. And I must admit, when I had a very heavy teaching load and was doing this demonstration two times in a day, I gave myself a sore mouth and achy tummy on more than one occasion. But you’re probably tough, and can handle it. Just don’t overdo it on the lemons!!

Soon I will get to go to a flavor tripping party and try this demonstration outside of the classroom. The variety of foods that I will get to try will be even greater. Some have reported modulation of the flavors of beer and wine, though I never dared try this in my classroom with underage students. After all, I don’t yet have tenure!! Further, there is some anecdotal evidence of enhancement of sweetness in non-sweet chemical containing items such as black coffee. In any case, a good host will have all guests sample foods before and after administration of the miraculin, and any good guest will try to eat as many different foods in the 30-60 minutes they have the effect as they possibly can.

Anyone who is allergic to berries of any kind is not recommended to participate in this demonstration given that it is not known how they will react. And any person who does not enjoy the manipulation can hasten its end by excess saliva circulation over the tongue as well as vigorous brushing of the tongue with a high-test (read: commercial) toothpaste.

There is one other taste demonstration I have done, that is far less popular, and has not launched a cultural following. In pursuit of the same learning outcomes, I have provided my students (on another day) the opportunity to try a different chemical called gymnema sylvestre (containing gymnemic acids). The only way to find this chemical is in the form of an herbal tea, often sold at Asian markets in the US as a diet aid. Why is it called a diet aid? Well, when you brew this tea and slosh it around your mouth for a full minute and then spit it out (you can swallow it, but its very bitter and not too pleasant), it blocks the ability of your sweet taste buds to process the flavor at all. Essentially the lesson here is, “you can be skinny because sweet things don’t taste good anymore”. As you can imagine, compliance with this treatment would likely be low, and thus it has yet to catch on in our thin-obsessed society. Anyway, I like to have my students taste honey after the manipulation, because it becomes a viscous non-flavored texture experience, and brings most of them back to their preschool days of wonderment about the taste of the Elmer’s glue they used in their crafts. I also have them taste vinegar, kale, and salt to ensure their other taste capacities have been spared.

So we have learned that the basic tastes, at least sweet and sour, can be dissociated via the use of physical compounds applied to the tongue. These things are short lasting due to the enzymes in our saliva and the near-constant cellular turnover in our tongues and mouths. This is important given that the mouth is a gatekeeper to the body, only allowing things inside that should be helpful, or at least not harmful, to our existence.

Have you tried miracle berries or gymnema sylvestre? Comment and let me know how it went! And if your interest has been piqued, I urge you to consult Google to start planning your own flavor tripping experience.


About Dr. Jen

Resident scientist and self-described as awesome.

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