Nutritionally speaking, taste is the ability to perceive flavors in food and beverages. Preference is the appreciation of one food and distaste of another. Decisions about taste are physical reactions that are dependent on specialized body organs called taste buds.

Although your culture has a decided influence on what you think is good to eat, decisions about food preferences may also depend on your genes, your medical history, and your personal reactions to specific foods. Your taste buds are sensory organs that enable you to perceive different flavors in food — in other words, to taste the food you eat.

Taste buds (also referred to as taste papillae) are not flowers. They’re tiny bumps on the surface of your tongue. Each one contains groups of receptor cells that anchor an antennalike structure called a microvillus, which projects up through a gap (or pore) in the center of the taste bud, sort of like a thread sticking through the hole in Life Savers candy.

The microvilli in your taste buds transmit messages from flavor chemicals in the food along nerve fibers to your brain, which translates the messages into perceptions: “Oh, wow, that’s good,” or “Man, that’s awful.” Your taste buds definitely recognize four basic flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Some people add a fifth basic flavor to this list. It’s called umami, a Japanese word describing richness or a savory flavor associated with certain amino acids such as glutamates — and soy products such as tofu.

Early on, scientists thought that everyone had specific taste buds for specific flavors: sweet taste buds for sweets, sour taste buds for sour, and so on. However, the prevailing theory today is that groups of taste buds work together so that flavor chemicals in food link up with chemical bonds in taste buds to create patterns that you recognize as sweet, sour, bitter, and salt.

The technical term for this process is across-fiber pattern theory of gustatory coding. Receptor patterns for the fave four (sweet, sour, bitter, salt) have been tentatively identified, but the pattern for umami remains elusive. Flavors are not frivolous. They’re one of the factors that enable you to enjoy food.

In fact, flavors are so important that MSG is used to make food taste better. MSG, most often found in food prepared in Chinese restaurants, stimulates brain cells. People who are sensitive to MSG may actually develop Chinese restaurant syndrome, which is characterized by tight facial muscles, headache, nausea, and sweating caused by overbouncy brain cells.

Very large doses of MSG given to lab rats have been lethal, and the compound is banned from baby food. However, no real evidence indicates that a little MSG is a problem for people who aren’t sensitive to it. Which leaves only one question: How does MSG work? Does it enhance existing flavors or simply add that umami flavor on its own? Believe it or not, right now nobody knows. Sorry about that.

Some illnesses and medicines alter your ability to taste foods. The result may be partial or total ageusia (the medical term for loss of taste). Or you may experience flavor confusion — meaning that you mix up flavors, translating sour as bitter, or sweet as salt, or vice versa.

Combining foods can short-circuit your taste buds’ ability to identify flavors correctly. For example, when you sip wine (even an apparently smooth and silky one), your taste buds say, “Hey, that alcohol’s sharp.” Take a bite of cheese first, and the wine tastes smoother (less acidic) because the cheese’s fat and protein molecules coat your receptor cells so that acidic wine molecules cannot connect.

A similar phenomenon occurs during serial wine tastings (tasting many wines, one after another). Try two equally dry, acidic wines, and the second seems mellower because acid molecules from the first one fill up space on the chemical bonds that perceive acidity.

Drink a sweet wine after a dry one, and the sweetness often is more pronounced. Here’s another way to fool your taste buds: Eat an artichoke. The meaty part at the base of the artichoke leaves contains cynarin, a sweet-tasting chemical that makes any food you taste after the artichoke taste sweeter.