Understanding Tastes and Food Flavors

Updated:Jan 13,2015

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 umami; 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 – Fruit, roasted vegetables, baked grains, sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup and milk have a sweet taste. 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 have a sour or acidic taste.
  3. Salty – Snacks, seaweed, ham, olives, cheese, and some seafood like oysters and clams have a salty taste. Breads and rolls, cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, poultry, soup, and sandwiches add the most sodium to our diet. Replace salt with herbs and spices and salty foods and ingredients with lower sodium versions. The American Heart Association recommends that most people consume less than 1,500 mg sodium per day.
  4. Bitter – Dark leafy greens, coffee, grapefruit*, unsweetened cocoa, tonic water all have a bitter taste.
  5. Umami – Defined as the ‘fifth taste,’ it is described as meaty or savory. Examples are beef, chicken, pork, tomato sauce, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, and soy sauce. When eating umami foods, look for lower sodium or no-sodium options.

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:

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

  • Bold flavors: Fish, mint and lime
    • Dinner in Minutes: Make a lower sodium canned tuna salad with mint and lime. Top grilled zucchini with a dressing of mint, lime and chopped 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: Mixing flavors and textures can be delicious and add pizzazz to dishes.

  • Bitter collard greens vs. unami chopped mushrooms
    • Dinner in Minutes: Cook greens in a little low-sodium chicken broth and add chopped mushrooms.
  • Sweet tomatoes vs. bitter arugula
    • Dinner in Minutes: Top whole wheat bread with fresh or low-sodium, canned tomatoes and fresh arugula 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 natural sugars
    • Dinner in Minutes: As a side or snack: Broil one-half fresh grapefruit* in the oven until golden to release some of the natural sweetness in the grapefruit.
  • Crunchy sweet pineapple vs. creamy avocado
    • Dinner in Minutes: Top broiled 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 © 2015 American Heart Association. This recipe/article 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.

Last reviewed 1/2015