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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Ask Ms. Scientist: Shots of Absinthe and Different Tastes

Dear Ms. Scientist,

What is absinthe (the “Green Fairy”)? Why is it legal at the Nitty even though it was once illegal? —Caitlin J.

Absinthe is a highly alcoholic, distilled spirit derived from the herbs wormwood, green anise and sweet fennel. It was banned during the Temperest Movement for its addictive and hallucinogenic effects. The chemical compound, Thujone, from the wormwood was once thought to be the cause of the alleged hallucinations because it is a GABA (muscular neurotransmitter) blocker. In high doses, thujone is toxic. However, according to present-day studies, it is not hallucinogenic and one would die from consumption of alcohol long before the minute amounts of thujone in absinthe kicked in. The green elixir can only be sold in the US if it is thujone-free and does not have “absinthe” on the package.

Dear Ms. Scientist,

What makes different people taste certain foods differently? For example, why is it someone likes the taste of tomatoes while someone else does not? —Abbie E.

“Taste” is a chemical interaction between a food and the taste-receptors on the papillae of the tongue, whereas “flavor” occurs in the brain when it fuses smell and all the reactions at the receptors in the tongue together to perceive a unique flavor. Some people are more sensitive to taste because they have an abundance of papillae in the bitter section of the tongue, making many tastes overwhelming. Additionally, bitter taste receptors are encoded by 20 to 40 genes, which allow the bitter taste-receptors to chemically interact with foods differently for each person. When the brain fuses all the signals from the papillae of all five areas, each person experiences a unique flavor and likeness of food.

Ask Ms. Scientist is written by Corinne Thornton. If you have a burning science question you want her to answer, tweet @DC_Science or email it to

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