Researchers have demonstrated for the first time that calcium channels on the tongue are the targets of compounds that can enhance taste. In addition to molecules that directly trigger specific taste buds (salty, sweet etc.), there are other substances which have no flavor of their own but can enhance the flavors they are paired with (known as kokumi taste in Japanese cuisine). The results appear in the January 8 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Exploiting this enhancement could have practical uses in food modulation; for example, creating healthy foods that contain minimal sugar or salt but still elicit strong taste. At the moment, though, the mode of action for these substances is poorly understood.

However, Yuzuru Eto and colleagues examined whether calcium channels –which sense and regulate the levels of calcium in the body— might be the mechanism involved; they noted that calcium channels are closely related to the receptors that sense sweet and umami (savory) tastes and that glutathione (a common kokumi taste element) is known to interact with calcium channels.

To test their possibility, they created several small molecules that resembled glutathione and analyzed how well these compounds activated calcium channels in cell samples. Next, they diluted the same test substances in flavored water (salt water, sugar water, etc.) and asked volunteers (all trained in discriminating tastes) to rate how strong the flavors were.

The results provided a strong correlation; the molecules that induced the largest activity in calcium receptors also elicited the strongest flavor enhancement in the taste tests.

For further confirmation, the researchers tested several other known calcium channel activators, including calcium, and found all exhibited some degree of flavor enhancement, while a synthetic calcium channel blocker could suppress flavors.

This study provides new of insight into the areas of taste biology; the authors also note that calcium channels are found in the gastro-intestinal tract as well, suggesting they may be important in other aspects of eating, such as food digestion and absorption.

Citation: T. Ohsu et al., 'Involvement of the Calcium-sensing Receptor in Human Taste Perception', Journal of Biological Chemistry, November 2009, 285, 1016-1022; doi:10.1074/jbc.M109.029165