Professor Discusses Taste
Campus event explores food and taste through a scientific lens
Donald B. Katz, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brandeis, discussed the relationship between taste and neurons at a seminar yesterday.
The hour-long talk, hosted by Harvard University Dining Service’s Food Literacy Project and the Harvard Society for Mind, Brain, and Behavior, drew over 60 students to William James Hall, where they listened to Katz speak and had the opportunity to try a special food additive.
Katz explained how taste travels from taste receptors in the mouth to neurons in the brain.
“Most neurons delivering information to the brain do not respond only to sweet...or salty, but instead respond to a bunch of different tastes,” Katz said.
He also talked about how there are four universally recognized tastes—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter—but some scientists believe there is also a fifth taste.
“There’s a great controversy—admittedly, a great controversy in this field is like a tiny little controversy—about whether there are four or five tastes,” Katz said.
He explained that some scientists believe that there is a fifth taste called savory that is analogous to umami.
Katz said that this idea is particularly in vogue among Asian scientists who work in areas where umami is popular, like Japan.
Katz also gave a primer on “miracle fruit,” which makes both sweet and sour foods taste sweeter.
Some of the seminar’s hosts gave audience members tablets containing miraculin, the active molecule that gives miracle fruit its unique property.
“By the way, when you hear names like that, it’s basically code for we don’t know what the hell that is,” Katz quipped, referring to the word miraculin.
Students had the opportunity to try miraculin tablets with an assortment of fruits, chips, and kimchi.
The tablets were ordered from Amazon.com, according to Neurobiology concentrator Judith E. Fan ’10, who helped coordinate the event.
“Everything tastes so much sweeter,” said Qian “Amy” Huang ’13. “Lemons taste like lemonade.”
Brandeis graduate student Caitlin Pierre, Katz’s lab assistant, explained that miraculin can be used with a variety of items.
“It’s really interesting to do it with beer,” she said. “You do it with something like Guinness. It tastes really bitter—you put [the tablet] on your tongue and suddenly the Guinness tastes like a milkshake.”
—Staff writer Derrick Asiedu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.