Magazine article Science News

Meaty Receptor Helps Tongue Savor Flavor

Magazine article Science News

Meaty Receptor Helps Tongue Savor Flavor

Article excerpt

These days, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is doing more than spicing up Asian food. It's giving scientists a taste of how the tongue recognizes flavors.

Scientists have struggled for many years to identify taste receptors--proteins on the surface of the tongue's taste cells that recognize flavor-producing chemicals in food. "The effort ... has not been very rewarding up to now," says taste researcher Bernd Lindemann from Saar University in Homburg, Germany.

Researchers from the University of Miami School of Medicine report in the February NATURE NEUROSCIENCE that they have identified the cell receptor specific for a taste called umami, the distinctive flavor of MSG.

Some scientists say that along with the four familiar tastes--salty, sweet, sour, and bitter--umami is a basic flavor recognized by the tongue. Loosely translated from Japanese, umami means delicious or yummy. Umami is the savory, meaty flavor of parmesan cheese, mushrooms, meat, and many Asian foods.

Last year, researchers reported that they had found two other possible taste receptors (SN: 2/27/99, p. 132). What tastes those molecules sense remains uncertain, says Lindemann, commenting in the same issue of NATURE NEUROSCIENCE. The new study is the first to link a specific taste with a receptor protein that recognizes flavors.

"I think this is a really important finding," says neuroscientist Sue C. Kinnamon from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

In 1996, Nirupa Chaudhari, who led the current study, and her coworkers at Miami identified a protein called mGluR4, which they thought corresponded to a receptor for umami. …

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