Researchers Discover a Sixth Basic Taste

Much of the way we interact with food comes down to our sense of taste. Creating new flavor infusions is an art that guides the culinary industry and keeps people excited about eating throughout their lives. Although we each have unique flavor preferences, there are five basic tastes that all humans share. Now, research from USC Dornsife suggests a sixth taste may someday feature in biology textbooks worldwide.
The Five Basic Human Tastes
Schools teach children about the sense of taste, and most of us remember learning about how the taste buds work. While many of us grew up with four tastes to memorize (sour, salty, bitter, and sweet) a fifth taste, umami, officially joined the list in the early 2000s. Here’s a recap of the five basic tastes and their role in human nutrition.

  1. Salty: indicates the presence of sodium in food, which can enhance other flavors.

  3. Sour: characteristic of acidic foods like citrus or vinegar. Sourness can be balanced with other flavors and pairs particularly well with sweet foods.

  5. Sweet: sweetness tells us that food contains sugar, specifically glucose, which our bodies can use as fuel.

  7. Bitter: most humans are averse to bitter flavors because they are reminiscent of toxic substances. Ancient humans developed this taste to avoid eating poisonous foods.

  9. Umami: the newest basic taste that is said to indicate the presence of proteins in food. We can use this term to describe savory, meaty flavors.

Ammonium Chloride: The Key to a Sixth Basic Taste?
Researchers from USC Dornsife recently discovered that humans can perceive the presence of ammonium in food using the same taste receptors that detect sour flavors. The scientists call this receptor OTOP1. When humans taste ammonium chloride, our bodies produce a slight nerve response, similar to the experience of eating something very acidic.
It has long been used as a food additive under the name E510. In northern Europe, the ingredient commonly features on salted licorice labels. Despite the researchers’ observations, principal scientist Emily Liman says they are still investigating whether our reaction to ammonium chloride can truly be called a sixth basic taste. For now, the University is using mice to research the ingredient and its sensory effects.
Using Ammonium Chloride as a Salt Substitute
The rising demand for healthy salt substitutes has created opportunities for the development of new low-sodium foods and flavorings. Ammonium chloride may help enhance salty flavors since it acts on the same taste cells that detect sodium in food. There may be potential to use the ingredient as a flavor enhancer for salt-free dishes like Europe has done with licorice candies. However, researchers warn that ammonium chloride may not be enjoyable to everyone’s taste buds.
The Success of the Ingredient Depends on Taste Preferences
So far, USC researchers have relied on behavioral experiments that track how mice respond to ammonium chloride. The animals generally tend to avoid it in high concentrations because it activates their bitter taste receptors as well. The same may not be true of humans, who are capable of more complex flavor perceptions.
The success of E510 as a salt substitute will largely rely on individual preference. Cultural upbringing and genetics affect how we perceive flavor, so what works for some people may not work for others.
Building Complex Flavor Profiles
While the jury is out on the status of ammonium chloride as a sixth human taste, we can still use it to enhance the flavor of savory foods. Unique flavor profiles come from meticulous ingredient pairings to create a balance between strong-tasting ingredients. Explore our range of premium natural flavorings and aromatics to find the perfect flavor additives for your product. Please contact us for more information.