Taste versus Flavor

When I write in Italian, invariably I confuse the word gusto meaning “taste” or “flavor” with the word sapore meaning “taste” or “flavor.”  Often, they are used synonymously and sometimes can be used interchangeably, but in reality, they have two distinct meanings, as in English.  Thank goodness for Eleonor Vieri, an Italian language expert and my editor, who knows the correct word for each context.  To try to improve my written and spoken Italian, I did a little research in both languages.

When we eat, many pleasant sensations come from both the nose and the mouth, which perceive different characteristics.  The mouth detects the taste, and the nose captures the aromas.  It is the combination between taste and smell that creates a flavor.  In fact, there exists only 5 tastes:  sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and more recently, savory.  Unlike what we may have learned in school, taste receptors are not concentrated in specific zones in the mouth but are scattered randomly throughout.  Sweetness is caused by a form of sugar or alcohol.  Sweet foods, like cake, honey, fruits and fruit juice, are often high in carbohydrates which provide fuel for the body.  Sourness, or tartness, is the taste of acids found in foods like vinegar, lemon juice and yogurt.  Saltiness is from sodium found in table salt, soy sauce and processed meat.  Bitterness is found in foods like coffee, wine, dark chocolate and arugula.

The fifth taste is technically called “umami.”  Scientists identified umami taste receptors on the human tongue in 2002.  It is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the building blocks of protein.  In fact, umami was discovered more than 100 years ago in Japan by a scientist named Dr. Kikunae Ikeda.  While he was enjoying a bowl of kelp broth, Dr. Ikeda noticed that the savory flavor was distinct from the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter and salty.  He named this additional taste “umami,” which means “the essence of deliciousness” in Japanese.  He eventually found that the taste of umami was attributed to glutamate.  It is found in foods like meat, aged cheese, fish, tomatoes and mushrooms.

While there are only 5 tastes, we detect thousands of flavors because of our sense of smell.  In fact, it is often said that you eat first with your nose and then with your mouth.  An average person is said to be able to recognize 10,000 distinct aromas.  Hence, our olfactory sensitivity means that scents become a large part of our appreciation of flavors.  If we hold our nose or catch a cold or other virus, all we will be able to detect are the five tastes.  At these times, foods seem almost tasteless.  Understanding what happens as we taste and smell food helps us analyze a dish and improve the way we cook it, transforming the kitchen into an even more interesting and fun environment.

But the question remains:  Will all of this improve the correct usage of gusto and sapore? I doubt it.  I’m still inclined to translate “the flavors of gelato…” as sapori, when, in fact, it should be gusti.

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