So, you know how we have a little obsession with tasty science activities right? Well, I was super excited when Mr GSK came home with both regular and champagne watermelon varieties from the shops recently, because I knew it would be perfect for a little edible science experiment to explore how we perceive taste. (Hint: we use much more than just our tastebuds!)
To do this taste science experiment, you need:
- regular (red) watermelon
- champagne (yellow) watermelon
- paper and pen to record your findings
- blind fold (optional) or you can just close our eyes
- little people, who aren’t familiar with eating yellow watermelon, to be the tasters!
Ask the kids to taste both types of watermelon. How do they taste? Write down their answers.
Ask the kids to taste again, this time with their eyes closed. Do they taste the same without the visual cues? Can they even pick which melon they are tasting?
Our tastebuds detect five basic tastes: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami (which is a kind of brothy or meaty taste.) Apparently there is evidence of a possible sixth taste – fattiness – but scientists are still figuring that one out.
But tastebuds are only one of the ways our brains interpret the flavour of food. We also use:
– the smell
– the temperature
– the texture
– how it looks
– and our previous experiences
In this experiment, we’re challenging the brain to comprehend a change in some of these variables (how the melon looks, and our previous experiences with the flavour of yellow things), whilst keeping others consistent (the temperature, the texture, the smell and the input from our tastebuds) to see how this affects our overall sense of taste.
At first, my youngest daughter Bumble Bee didn’t even want to taste the yellow watermelon, as she believed that she wouldn’t enjoy the flavour (which is surprising as she usually loves all sorts of fruit.) This reaction to something that ‘looks wrong’ is a handy one from an evolutionary point of view, as it could indicate food that is poisonous or rotten. Of course, I know that there is nothing wrong with our champagne watermelon, so I invoked our “we try everything“ rule. (We have a food rule in our family: “You don’t have to eat it, and you don’t have to like it, but you do have to try it”).
Of course, once she did try it, she wasn’t as repulsed as she originally thought. In fact, she thought that she slightly liked it, but definitely not as much as she loves regular red watermelon. We recorded our findings. (Writing things down makes experiments like this feel so much more official and science-y!)
Next time, I asked her to close her eyes, and see if the watermelon tasted different with her eyes closed. She tasted the red watermelon twice, once with eyes open and once with eyes closed. She tasted the yellow watermelon twice, once with eyes open and once with eyes closed. Bumble Bee reported no change – she still strongly preferred the flavour of the red watermelon. We noted our findings.
Next I asked her to close her eyes and taste a mystery piece of watermelon, and tell me if she thought it was red or yellow without looking. Low and behold, she couldn’t! She would guess a colour, and randomly get it right or wrong, demonstrating that her earlier perception of flavour difference was based on visual cues and previous experiences, rather than on her actual taste buds.
Bumble Bee thought this was hilarious! We taste tested again and again just to check. She must have taste tested at least a dozen times.
Afterwards, funnily enough, Bumble Bee started to enjoy eating the yellow watermelon with her eyes open much more. Now that she was aware that her brain was playing a trick on her, she’d learnt to disassociate the colour difference with a flavour difference.
We have loads more delicious science activities on our edible science page, including:
- Sweet vs Sour: how to confuse your tastebuds with Miracle Berries.
- Make sherbet and enjoy a delightfully fizzy chemical reaction on your tongue.
- Try this easy Anzac Biscuit recipe, and witness an impressively frothy acid base chemical reaction.