Understanding Tastes and Food Flavors

Updated:Nov 14,2014

tastes and flavorsThe delicious – or not so delicious – way in which a food tastes in your mouth is the result of many factors including flavor, smell, temperature and texture. Taste buds tell us if a food is sweet, sour, salty, bitter or unami; but the flavor of a particular food is also determine by aromas picked up by your nose. Understanding how different flavors balance and counter balance each other can help you be more comfortable with cooking!

The five tastes are:

  1. Sweet* – Most fruit, roasted vegetables, baked grains, sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup and milk
    Go easy on added sugars. Most women should eat or drink no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars and most men should eat or drink no more than 150 calories per day from added sugars.
  2. Sour/acidic – Sour fruits like limes and lemons, buttermilk, green tomatoes, vinegar, yogurt, and fermented foods like sauerkraut
  3. Salty* – Natural salts, seaweed, ham, olives, some seafood like oysters and clams
    Replace salt with herbs and spices and salty foods and ingredients with lower sodium versions. The American Heart Association recommends less than 1,500 mg sodium per day.
  4. Bitter – Dark leafy greens, coffee, grapefruit*, unsweetened cocoa, tonic water
    *Some cholesterol-lowering medications may interact with grapefruit, grapefruit juice, pomegranate and pomegranate juice. Please talk to your health care provider about any potential risks
  5. Unami – Defined as the ‘fifth taste,’ it is described as meaty or savory. Examples are beef, chicken, pork, no added salt tomato sauce, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, and low sodium soy sauce.

Balancing the intensity of flavors leads to delicious dishes. Here are some tips on how to make tasty dinners out of pantry staples – or even an unfamiliar ingredient you may have been given:

Balance flavors: Flavors that have similar intensity, aromas or textures:

  • Bold flavors: Fish, mint and lime
    • Dinner in Minutes: Low sodium canned tuna salad with mint and lime OR grilled zucchini with a dressing of mint, lime and mashed low sodium anchovies/sardines
  • Earthy flavors: Mushrooms, lentils, bay leaves
    • Dinner in Minutes: Cook lentils (or dry beans) and mushrooms in low sodium chicken broth with a bay leaf
  • Crunchy textures: Apples, celery, nuts
    • Dinner in Minutes: Serve a salad of chopped apples, celery and unsalted nuts; combine with a dressing of vanilla low-fat, no added sugar yogurt
  • Sweet aromas: Roasted beets and orange juice
    • Dinner in Minutes: Make a dressing of orange juice, grated orange rind and a little olive oil; use to top roasted beets

Counter-acting flavors: Opposite flavors can actually be delicious together and add pizzazz to dishes.

  • Bitter collard greens vs. salty ham
    • Dinner in Minutes: Cook greens in a little low sodium chicken broth and add diced lean, low sodium ham
  • Sweet tomatoes vs. unami chopped mushrooms
    • Dinner in Minutes: Top whole wheat bread with fresh or low sodium canned tomatoes and chopped mushrooms and add a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil ; broil in oven to warm
  • Burning spicy hot pepper vs. soothing yogurt
    • Dinner in Minutes: Bean casserole made with spicy hot peppers and topped with low-fat, no sugar added yogurt
  • Sour grapefruit* vs. sweet sugar
    • Dinner in Minutes: As a side or snack: One-half fresh grapefruit* topped with 1 teaspoon brown sugar and broiled in oven until golden
  • Acidic pineapple vs. soothing avocado
    • Dinner in Minutes: Fish with a salsa of canned pineapple, avocado and chopped green peppers
*Some cholesterol-lowering medications may interact with grapefruit, grapefruit juice, pomegranate and pomegranate juice. Please talk to your healthcare provider about any potential risks

Article copyright © 2014 American Heart Association. This recipe is brought to you by the American Heart Association's Simple Cooking with Heart © Program. For more articles and simple, quick and affordable recipes, visit heart.org/simplecooking.