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The Fifth Element—Of Taste

By Lowell R. Matthews, Copyright 2000

Wait a minute—aren't there only four tastes—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter? Not according to Rachel K. Sobel of U.S. News & World Report, whose article in the February 7, 2000, issue reported on a discovery published in the February Nature Neuroscience. What's the new flavor? In Japanese, it's called umami. So why should that be of interest to the gaming community? World design, for one.

Classic textbook biology divides the world of taste into sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. But new research suggests there is a fifth flavor: umami. Back in 1908, a Japanese professor named this taste and pinpointed its main ingredient, glutamate. That's the savory "G" in MSG, the popular Chinese food additive; it's also found in protein-rich foods, such as aged cheeses and meat. Now researchers from the University of Miami, writing in this month's Nature Neuroscience, say they are closer to understanding the biology behind umami and thus the reason people can distinguish—and seek out—high-protein food.

It sounds strange to call something named in 1908 "new." What's new is, to shorten the typically long scientific story, that the Miami researchers found a taste receptor that binds to glutamate and generates a sensory signal that does not correspond to any of the classic four tastes. In fact, according to Saar University physiologist Bernd Lindemann, "The European languages have no word for this taste, while the Japanese do." Even without a word for it, the taste can still be sensed by Westerners. As Sobel closes, "Taste experts label it 'brothy' or 'meaty'; others call it 'savory' or 'yummy.' But the best way to understand umami, says paper coauthor Stephen D. Roper, is to sprinkle the tongue with some Parmesan cheese—and enjoy."

Glutamate is the ionized form of glutamic acid, which is one of the most common of the 20 amino acids used in Nature to build proteins. (MSG is monosodium glutamate, the sodium salt of glutamic acid.) A chemical sensor (taste or smell) for an amino acid is therefore an advantage in finding high-protein foods. The four classic tastes serve similar purposes, some to aid in finding nutritious food, and others to aid in avoiding poisons. Sweet tastes usually correspond to foods rich in sugars, starches, or fats—all forms of food energy. Salty foods can help maintain the body's electrolyte balance; the high-energy fats are usually salty as well as sweet. Sour tastes generally indicate acids. Many acids are beneficial nutrients, like acetic, citric, lactic, and maleic acids, but strong sour tastes might warn of acidity strong enough to be corrosive or toxic. Likewise, bitter tastes generally indicate bases. Many bases are dangerous; most of the plant toxins fall into this category, so most creatures avoid bitter tastes.

Now, then, let us relate this news to world design. The Human cultures of Earth amply demonstrate that even when individual members of a sapient species have the same sense organs, distinctions do not always enter the various languages. The umami taste is, of course, a case in point. Parallels also exist for other senses. For example, some Bushman languages of southern Africa contain words for only the colors black, white, and red. In sound, specifically music, Western cultures tend to use a twelve-note scale (the misnamed "octave" really has twelve tones including the accidentals), while some Eastern scales have six, eight, or ten notes. For that reason, Eastern music usually sounds very strange, "wrong," to Western ears. Furthermore, words to describe senses are often imprecise. "Touch," for instance, is in reality composed of at least three separate sensors for pressure, heat, and cold.

So if different cultures among one sapient species can have so many variations in perception as reflected in their languages, what will happen when a large number of sapient species enter the picture? That situation is typical of most fantasy and science fiction settings. One likely consequence is difficulty in communication; after all, sensory information is the most fundamental way a creature interacts with its environment, and is therefore one of the basic underpinnings of language, learning, and experience.

By way of illustration, let us now compare four sapient species, all of which can be found on the World of Novi, with notable biological differences: Novani (Humans), Idiyva, Maazhat, and Sohleugir. Borrowing from real-world taxonomic classification, the Novani of order Primates are most closely related to the Idiyva of order Carnivora, which both belong to class Mammalia of phylum Chordata. The next closest relationship is to the Sohleugir of class Reptilia of Chordata. Finally, the Maazhat belong to a different phylum, Arthropoda, but even they share kingdom Animalia with the other three.

Compared to the Novani, the Idiyva have superior senses in most respects, especially in smell, directional hearing, and low-light vision. Their senses of touch, taste, and color vision are not as highly developed. Because their diet is still primarily carnivorous, hence high in protein and fat, their umami and salty tastes are more developed than the others.

Many senses of the Sohleugir, in contrast, are inferior to those of the Novani, particularly in touch, hearing, normal taste, and normal vision, though their underwater vision is much better. Like many other reptiles, Sohleugir have a directional chemical sense with features between those of smell and taste—hence very hard to translate. Sohleugir are also primarily carnivorous, but their diet contains much larger proportions of fish, rendering normal taste relatively unimportant.

The chemical senses of the Maazhat are arguably their sharpest; indeed, most communication between individual Maazhat is conveyed by chemical pheromones or odors. In general, only Maazhat from the "lieutenant" and "queen" castes are capable of learning vocal languages, and the chemical subtleties of the Maazhat language are beyond the perceptions of most sapient chordates. Maazhat probably have distinct receptors to at least five times the five Novani tastes, if not more. Their diet also includes many things no chordate would consider.

So, the next time characters of two widely differing cultures or species come together, it might prove highly entertaining to find those untranslatable differences. Will the Novani ambassador retch at the taste of, say, an Idiyvan ritual delicacy? If he does, he might find himself starting a round of laughter, or even a blood feud or war!

Editor's Note

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