In order to survive, almost all life forms require water to live. There are some exceptions, like bacterial spores, some worms, and the most fascinating creature of all…

(The Tardigrade!)

For humans, drinking water may seem to be a rather inert process. We drink, we become hydrated, and we’re good to go. But have you ever taken the time to notice the taste of water?

It may seem odd at first but when you think about it, every water source has a different effect on our tongues. In some circles, the taste of water can determine its quality. There are even, believe it or not…

(Water Sommeliers…)

The key to a good water lies in the content within. Salts, minerals, and other components all add to the flavour of that clear solution. Depending on the concentrations, your tongue will be greeted with a different sensation, which provides your brain with either pleasure or unhappiness.

But what about pure water? Would you think it has a taste?

I’ve tried it myself and I have to admit, I was shocked when I noticed my tongue reacting to the liquid combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Back then, I had no idea what was happening. But now it seems the mechanism behind that taste has been identified.

The answer comes to us in the form of an article entitled, The cellular mechanism for water detection in the mammalian taste system. If you click on the title, you should be directed to a free PDF. If not, I apologize.

The researchers set out to figure out how our tongues perceive the taste of water. As you might expect, they believed the answer lied in the taste buds. If you’ve never seen one at the molecular level, here’s what it looks like…

(Pretty, don’t you think?)

The key to taste is found on the surface of those cells wrapped up in the ball. They are called taste receptor cells, or TRCs. They can sense all five tastes – sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami – and relay that information to the brain.

The team decided to take a look at these cells and the molecules that determine the various tastes, aptly called taste receptors, in the hopes of finding any that would react to pure water. Eventually, they did. The TRCs responded the same way we respond to…

(Acids…)

You’re probably wondering how something that is completely pure and devoid of any acids – or bases for that matter – might trigger an acid response. The researchers did too. The answer came in the form of another normal process we all perform but think very little about…

(Exhaling…)

When we breathe out, we are sending out carbon dioxide into the air. But not all of it goes into the atmosphere. Some of the TRCs will actually grab on to the molecule and mix it with the water in our mouths. The end result is another product we all know quite well but don’t consider to be part of our bodies…

(Bicarbonate…)

This natural base keeps the TRCs prepped for anything acidic that might be considered toxic or noxious. Many possible substances apply in this case although one I had hoped would fit into this category does not…

(But I digress…)

When pure water enters the taste bud area, a dilution effect occurs. The bicarbonate is removed from the area and the TRCs recognize this as the arrival of an acid.

Here’s where it gets interesting…

When the TRCs are triggered, we tend to want to drink more. It’s as if our brains want us to continue the dilution process. That makes sense as water does offer the chance to clear out mouths and reset the balance.

But this has no effect on our sensation of dehydration or the feeling of being full due to water. This is controlled by another system in the body related to stress. In other words, while these TRCs may help us drink a little more, they are not responsible for…

(You get the idea…)

With this in hand, here’s a little experiment for you to try.

When you next decide to take a sip of water, take a moment to decide if first you can taste it. Do you have a slightly acidic feeling on your tongue? If so, what does it bring to your mind?

Next, see if you can just have just that one sip alone. Do you need more right after? You may find yourself having to go back to the glass or bottle for some more dilution to feel happy.

Finally, when you are finished drinking the total volume, try to discern a taste. Is it different from when you took your first sip? Can you sense the dilution effect?

If you decide to perform the experiment, let me know and share the results in the comments.

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