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Researchers investigate how tongue reacts to different textures in food

STATE COLLEGE, Pa., U.S.: For a long time, people have known that individual differences in taste and smell can have an influence on liking or disliking a particular food. Recently, in a new study, researchers used chocolate to help understand how the tongue reacts to different textures in food, revealing that the tongue has much to do with whether the food is eaten, liked or rejected.

The study, conducted in the Sensory Evaluation Center at the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences in the U.S., involved 111 volunteer tasters, who had their tongues checked for physical sensitivity and were then asked to describe their perceptions about various textures of chocolate. To gather the data, the researchers tested whether there was a relationship between oral touch sensitivity and the perception of particle size. They used a device called von Frey hairs to gauge whether the participants could discriminate between different amounts of force applied to their tongues.

According to the researchers, when the participants were split into high- and low-acuity groups based on pressure point sensitivity, there was a significant relationship between chocolate texture discrimination and pressure point sensitivity on the center of the tongue for the high-acuity group. However, a similar relationship was not seen for data from the lateral edge of the tongue.

“These findings are novel, as we are unaware of previous work showing a relationship between oral pressure sensitivity and ability to detect differences in particle size in a food product,” said Dr. John Hayes, Director of the Sensory Evaluation Center. “Collectively, these findings suggest that texture detection mechanisms, which underpin point pressure sensitivity, likely contribute to the detection of particle size in food such as chocolate.”

The study, conducted by a cross-disciplinary team that included both food and speech scientists, also brought about new insight regarding swallowing. Dr. Nicole Etter, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the Penn State College of Health and Human Development, said: “An important aspect of speech-language pathology is helping people with feeding and swallowing problems. Many clinical populations—ranging from young children with disabilities to older adults with dementia—may reject foods based on their perception of texture. This research starts to help us understand those individual differences.”

With new insights into the tongue, the team now wants to take its research a step further to focus on studies involving foods other than chocolate and enrolling older, perhaps less healthy participants. The aims are to judge the ability of such participants to experience oral sensations and to explore food rejection behavior that may have serious health and nutrition implications.

The study, titled “Oral somatosensatory acuity is related to particle size perception in chocolate,” was published on May 15, 2019, in Scientific Reports.

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