It happens to everyone: you grab something citrus or citrus-flavored, take that first bite, and your whole face tightens as your lips pucker in response. No other flavor can cause such an unusual reaction. It is not necessarily a response of displeasure even; it is the by-product of sudden and intense stimulation to the taste buds. From the furrowed brow down to the puckered lips, the visage of someone who has just tasted something sour is unmistakable.
It's not necessary to take a bite of sour food, or even get it all the way into your mouth, to elicit the physical response. It is such a sharp flavor that merely touching something sour to the tip of the tongue can be enough to set off the visible reaction. The response is akin to a whole face squint -- the brow furrows, eyes narrow or squeeze shut, the nose crinkles and, most noticeably, the lips pucker into a round, tight little mass.
The tiny little bumps called taste buds' primary job is to sense the flavors of anything put into the mouth. This serves two benefits. It allows eating, one of the most vital processes in life, to be a pleasurable experience, thereby increasing an animal's desire to do it. The second is a sensory screening process, another way to make sure anything ingested is safe for the body. Certain areas of the tongue are more in-tune with certain flavor profiles. Proteins in tongue cells make the cells more sensitive to four primary flavor profiles: sweet, salty, bitter and sour.
Once something sour touches the tongue ion channels, created by those taste-recepting proteins, they conduct signals to the brain indicating which taste group causes the stimulation. Studies have shown that this activity occurs most sharply with sour foods. Foods from the three other taste groups cause the ion channels to narrow, but sour foods cause them to open wide. This is why the brain requires so little stimulation to know the tongue is tasting something sour.
Tongues sense sourness because one of the most common tastes occurring in expired food is sour. The primary function of the sensitivity is bodily protection. However, a number of safe, if not pleasurable, foods taste sour. The flavor occurs naturally in citrus fruits, such as lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits. Other fruits may taste sour, or tart, depending on their ripeness. Processed foods created to replicate these flavors also taste sour, primarily candy products. The flavor is so pleasing to some people that candymakers create many kinds of candy that taste numbingly sour in an attempt to elicit a puckered reaction.
- Photo Credit lemon is sour image by anna karwowska from Fotolia.com
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