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Tastes 'unique to each person'

ABC online reported on 13 September 2005 that taste is in the brain of the beholder and varies, sometimes dramatically, from one person to the next, according to one of the world's leading sensory neurobiologists.

“No two people will ever smell the same thing in the same way,” Patrick MacLeod, the president of the Institute of Taste and former director of the sensory neurobiology laboratory at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, said.

“When we perceive an odours, the exact nature of the sensation that is produced depends as much on the observer as the object.”

Vision, hearing and tactile perception are far more uniform across the species, meaning that human beings see, hear and touch more or less the same things.

But when it comes to odours and taste, one man's wine-of-the-gods can be another man's plonk.

Mr MacLeod says this and other recent findings in sensory neurobiology up-end a lot of received wisdom and a fair amount of established science.

They also carry profound implications for a host of consumer-oriented industries ranging from food and wine to perfumes and household products.

The search for a taste or odours that will please everyone, if Mr MacLeod is right, would seem doomed from the start.

“Almost everything we have done up to now in the study of taste has been called into question. We have to start over,” he said.

Complex sense Several factors account for diversity in the human sense of smell. The human genome contains 347 olfactory genes — fully 1% of the total — while there are only four, for example, for vision.

At least half of those genes are polymorphous, meaning that “they have a great potential of variation among themselves,” Mr MacLeod says.

Then there is the fact that people have widely divergent thresholds of perception to various odour-emitting substances.

The micro-quantity of pyridine — an organic compound in food flavourings that Mr MacLeod has used in experiments — that your cousin finds overwhelmingly unpleasant may be utterly imperceptible to you.

For another substance, however, it may be the other way around.

‘Maximum sensitivity’ Mr MacLeod's research is chock-full of counter-intuitive tidbits, beginning with the fact that homo sapiens do have an excellent sense of smell.

“The human sensory system for odours has attained maximum sensitivity,” he said.

“A single molecule can provoke a response in a single cell that is then transmitted to the brain.

“As the molecule is the smallest unit possible, there can be no improvement.”

Mr MacLeod has also shown that teeth provide the brain nearly half of the information it receives related to taste, and that the nose collects most of the rest — via the mouth.

The tongue is rather useless.

He says that is one reason that older people are less sensitive to odours. No less surprising is the fact that, according to MacLeod, there are no intrinsically bad odours.

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