The ‘Taste’ map myth (Taste and Flavour)

Institute of Food Research
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Taste and Flavour

For Teachers

The ‘Taste’ map myth


It is a commonly held myth that there are specific areas on your tongue for the separate taste buds and it is common to see diagrams showing the bitter, sweet, salty and sour zones of the tongue. The taste map originated in 1901 when a German PhD thesis by D.P. Hanig was mistranslated and misinterpreted. It entered common folklore and was not debunked until 1974, though tongue maps still appear in textbooks and on websites.

While this is partially true it is now known that the sensation of taste is far more complicated with different taste receptor cells (see activity Taste Buds), variation amongst people and taste buds that change with age. All taste buds detect all tastes though there are different types of taste buds located around the oral cavity.


Pupils test themselves against the traditional taste map and see if they can draw their own taste zones. It will help pupils if they have mirrors so they can see where they are touching on their tongues.
Dispel the tongue map myth – this can be done by placing a ‘sweet’ cotton bud to the back or side of the tongue, as the map says you only taste sweet at the tip OR place a small amount of salt on the very tip of your tongue.

What you will require

• The five basic tastes; sweet (sugar solution), salty (salt solution), sour (citric acid solution or lemon juice) and bitter (flat tonic water or coffee). It is important to use flat tonic water as carbonation changes the taste.
• Mirrors
• Diagrams of the tongue to label.

Health and Safety

Ideally pupils would have their own taste samples for this activity to reduce the chance of cross contamination. If this is not possible ensure that cotton buds are not placed back in taste solutions.

Further reading and links

BBC Science and Nature taste information and animation

Taste science at Cornell University :

Neuroscience for kids – Taste

New Scientist. Does anything eat wasps? Pages 114-115. Ed. Mick O’Hare, 2005, Profile Books Ltd.

Neuroscience for kids – Test your taste lesson

BBC Science and Nature lemon juice experiment:

Tongue map: myth or reality?

Naked Scientists – Carbonation taste

New Scientist. Do Polar Bears Get Lonely? Pages 16-17. Ed. Mick O’Hare, 2008, Profile Books Ltd.


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