Our senses: How does taste work?

Do it yourself

Chips, pizza and gummy bears...hm yummy! Why do sweet and salty dishes taste particularly good to us, and why don't we usually like bitter Brussels sprouts? It's because our sense of taste wants to protect our body. While sweet foods promise us quickly available energy and salty foods certainly contain many important minerals, a bitter food could possibly also be poisonous. To be on the safe side, we should spit it out again. Today we eat only familiar foods, but in the past the sense of taste played an important role in human survival. Of course, the sense of taste is still important today and especially the tongue is a real superhero that masters many tasks.


Here we show you a few exciting and various experiments with which you can test your sense of taste and riddle with friends. You will also learn how the tongue is built and how tasting works.

Let's go - have fun!

You want to learn more about taste?

Have you always wondered how your tongue is actually constructed? Or how it works regarding flavour? Do all people taste the same or are there taste experts?

Below you will find additional information about the sense of taste
and links to information material that we have found online on the subject! Don't miss part 2 of our series: Lab@Home: Sinn: Schmecken - Geschmackserlebnis (EN)


  • Suitable for age group: ca. 9 years old

  • Especially interesting for: Children and adolescents, gourmets, experimenters, budding scientists and medical doctors

  • Time: about 10-30 min per experiment

Experiment 1: Where can you taste what?!

The tongue can perceive the tastes sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, which is a spicy, hearty taste such as meat. But does the tongue taste the same in all places or are there areas where only certain flavours are perceived? Test it with this experiment!

  • You need:

  • Five small bowls

  • A knife

  • Cutting board

  • Mirror

  • Cotton sticks

  • Print template

  • Five coloured pens

  • Groceries:

  • Tap water

  • A lemon

  • A grapefruit

  •  1 tsp salt

  • 2-3 tsp sugar, best icing sugar

  • 1 tbsp soy sauce


If you don't have one of the ingredients at home, you can of course substitute it with another, as long as the flavour remains the same. For example, instead of grapefruit you can use espresso and instead of icing sugar you can use honey.

If you don't have a printer, that's no problem either. Just draw your own tongue, it's not that difficult.


Step 1: Putting the ingredients in order

First lay out all the materials on a table. Take the lemon and grapefruit and cut them in half so that you can squeeze out the juice straight away. If you don't yet know how to use a knife or don't want to, ask an adult to cut the fruit in half for you.

Step 2: Fill the bowls

Now take the bowls and fill each of them with one of the ingredients. Squeeze the lemon juice into one bowl, fill another with grapefruit juice, one with salt, one with sugar and another with soy sauce. Then add some tap water to the bowls of salt and sugar and stir to dissolve the ingredients.

Step 3: Test the sense of taste


Now you can get started and begin the experiment. Take a cotton bud, dip it into one of the bowls and dab it on different parts of your tongue. Use the mirror to help you see exactly where you have just touched your tongue.

Are there places on your tongue where you taste a certain flavour particularly intensely? Are there places where you can hardly taste anything?


Use a new cotton bud for each bowl, otherwise you will mix the flavours and the experiment may not work as well.

Step 4: Record observations

Mark the places on the print template where you have perceived the respective flavour. It is best to use a different colour for each flavour.

If you have done the experiment with friends or siblings, feel free to compare your results! Do the drawings of the tongues look the same to you or do you discover differences? Do you agree on everything or do you have different opinions on the perception of the tastes?

Solution and Explanation

Perhaps you have seen a picture in an older book, perhaps even in a school textbook, in which the tongue is divided into different taste zones. The picture is certainly familiar to many of you, but this division is incorrect.

You should have noticed during this experiment that you can perceive all tastes on all parts of the tongue. Only the middle of the tongue tastes a little less intensely because there are fewer taste buds here.

Experiment 2: The Significance of Saliva

You probably already know that the tongue is responsible for tasting, but without the help of saliva, our taste buds would have quite a problem. Find out for yourself!


  • You need:

  • A willing proband (test subject)

  • Sugar cubes

  • Tissues

Step 1: Tasting with saliva

Take a sugar cube and lick it once. Of course, you know that sugar tastes sweet, but it is important that you do it once so that you can compare the two situations. Remember how intensely you perceive the sweetness of the sugar.

Step 2: Tasting without saliva

Now comes the real test. Use the tissue to dry your tongue and especially the tip of your tongue. Make sure that you remove all the saliva from your tongue and that it doesn't touch anything in your mouth afterwards, so that it gets wet again straight away. Now take another sugar cube and lick it as you did in the first step. Does the sugar cube taste as sweet as before?


In this experiment you will notice that the sugar cube with the dry tongue has no taste and does not taste sweet at all. This is because you lack saliva.

Your taste buds are located in the small elevations on the mucous membrane of the tongue and are responsible for tasting. However, in order for them to perceive taste, the food mush must reach these buds. Saliva is responsible for this. Saliva helps with eating by making the chewed food smoother and more slippery so that it can be swallowed better and by transporting the food particles to the taste buds. Here, saliva is missing and thus the taste hardly reaches the receptors that can perceive it, or not at all.

Have fun

Learn more!

Structure of the tongue - How does tasting work?

The tongue is an elongated muscle and is located in the oral cavity. It is a very important and versatile organ that has many other functions besides tasting. For example, the tongue also plays an important role in touching, speaking, swallowing and distributing food.
The tongue is surrounded by a mucous membrane and can be divided into different areas. There is the division into the tip of the tongue, the body of the tongue and the root of the tongue, and there is also a distinction made between the upper side or back of the tongue and the lower side or base of the tongue. The structure of the tongue can be further subdivided, but this is not so important for understanding tasting.

The actual tasting takes place in the mucous membrane surrounding the tongue. It has many salivary glands, nerve cells and small elevations, the so-called papillae. The salivary glands produce saliva and ensure that the food mush becomes slippery and can be swallowed easily. The saliva also ensures that the food is better transported to the papillae.

Papillae can be divided into two different types depending on their function:

There are the so-called mechanical papillae, they are mainly responsible for the sensation of touch and temperature. These papillae provide information about whether the food has already been chewed enough and can be swallowed or whether the condition of the food is still too great

In addition, there are the taste papillae, which, as the name suggests, are responsible for tasting. These papillae contain the taste buds, which in turn contain the sensory cells. The sensory cells are activated by chemical substances and perceive the taste of the food. A total of five different tastes are recognised by the sensory cells. These are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Umami is a very savoury, hearty taste and is reminiscent of meat or spicy cheese.

The information from the papillae is then transmitted to the brain via three different nerves and processed there.

By the way, papillae are so large that you can even see the elevations with a mirror. They are also responsible for making your tongue feel rough. Check them out for yourself!

Caution: Do not confuse the words papilla and pupil. They sound pretty similar, but they describe completely different parts of the body.

Train the sense of taste

When you eat something in your day-to-day life, do you actually pay close attention to the different components of your food? And when you have to be quick, you surely have a ready-made meal every now and then, don't you? Many people feel that way, and that's not a problem in itself. However, if you often eat ready-made meals with artificial flavours and aromas, your sense of taste gets used to them and you perceive milder flavours less intensively. Fortunately, you can counteract this.

If you want to train your taste a bit and maybe even try some dishes you don't really like, there are some possibilities. First of all, you have to sharpen your attention and perception. Because as you already know, the number of taste buds is predetermined and you have no influence on it.

In order to perceive taste more intensively, you should only eat lightly spiced dishes with little salt and sugar for a certain period of time. Flavour enhancers should not be used at all. In addition, you should take your time when eating and concentrate on what you are eating. As a small self-test, you can give up sweets for a week. After a week, try a piece of chocolate and it will seem much sweeter.

Of course, you can also train your sense of taste so that you might actually like the foods you don't like. To do this, you should eat these foods every so often to try to get used to them.

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