Tag Archives: taste

Don’t drink and judge: Bitter tastes and moral disgust

Tasting something bitterDisgust is an emotion experienced – either actually or in the imagination – through the senses. Charles Darwin, for example, wrote: “I am disgusted by the stench and sight of that rotting viscera.” Some anthropologists suggest that feeling disgust was an adaptive survival mechanism in the course of our evolution. It may be maladaptive today, however, as it can result in fears of those who are different from us, sexual prejudices, and other irrational behaviors. Says anthropologist Dan Fessler:

We often respond to today’s world with yesterday’s adaptations. … That’s why, for instance, we’re more afraid of snakes than cars, even though we’re much more likely to die today as a result of an encounter with a car than a reptile.

Do bitter tastes increase moral disgust

Psychologists have asked whether there’s a connection between feelings of physical disgust and a sense of moral disgust. In an experiment designed to explore that question, test subjects were given three different drinks – one sweet, one bitter, and water. They were then shown morally questionable scenarios (ranging from second cousins engaging in consensual sex to a man eating his dead dog) and asked to rate how morally questionable they found these scenarios. Participants were also asked about their political orientation.

The results? Those who drank something bitter rated the scenarios 27 per cent more disgusting than those who drank water. In addition, political conservatives were more strongly affected by bitter tastes than liberals.

The psychologists’ conclusion: “[E]mbodied gustatory experiences may affect moral processing more than previously thought.” Or, as New Scientist relates:

Although the mechanisms linking taste and behaviour are not yet clear, the authors [of the study] ask whether jurors should avoid bitter tastes and whether food preferences play a role in shaping political ideals.

Hmmm. Maybe we could create more political harmony by feeding conservatives more cake. Read more


The pleasures and complexities of taste

Preparing food at homeThis week I discovered a wonderful new cooking and recipe blog, More Thyme Than Dough. It was started last February in response to these economically difficult times. More people are eating at home and need to prepare low-cost meals.

The website offers insights into food, delicious recipes with a detailed cost analysis, and beautiful, step-by-step photographs of the cooking process.

The physiology, evolutionary significance, and pleasure of taste

Back in March and April of 2009 I wrote a long series of posts on taste. I got interested in the subject when I came across the idea of supertasters – individuals who are overly sensitive to bitter tastes and, as a result, have their own peculiar food preferences. The percentage of people who are supertasters varies by nationality and ethnicity, but in the US it’s about 25%.

When More Thyme Than Dough contacted me about quoting one of my posts on taste (see the result at I Am not a Picky Eater!), I decided to resurrect them and present them here as a series. Read more


The Pepsi challenge: How beliefs affect what you taste

Got Taste?

Taste — so essential to our very survival — is a complex experience. It’s influenced by many things: our past experiences, the associations we make with specific foods, advertising, brand loyalties, cultural and ethnic preferences, price. If we think of taste as something objective, determined exclusively by our taste buds, we’re underestimating it.

Pepsi challenge

Image source: Wikipedia

Researchers have experimented with many of the subjective influences on taste. For example, Coke is rated higher in taste when people drink from a cup with the Coke logo. Beer preferences disappear if the brand labels are removed. Bitter coffee tastes less bitter if you repeatedly tell consumers that it’s not bitter. This last one is from a study called “Cognitive Effects of Deceptive Advertising.”

One of my favorite examples is a study on wine tasting. Volunteers tasted what they thought were five different wines, priced at $5, $10, $35, $45 and $90 a bottle. All 20 volunteers reported that the more expensive the wine, the more they liked the taste. Little did they know: The experiment only used three different wines. The $90 wine, for example, was also presented as the $10 wine. The tasters’ brains were hooked up to functional MRIs during this wine tasting. One significant and discouraging finding in this experiment: A part of the brain that notices the pleasantness of an experience becomes more active when we believe something costs more.

These studies are of great interest to food and beverage manufacturers and their advertising agencies. Coke still outsells Pepsi, despite losing the Pepsi challenge. One study in particular probed taste preferences at a fundamental level: Our personal values and the cultural symbols that represent those values.
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This is your brain on sugar — and sugar substitutes

Got Taste?

There’s no question that artificial sweeteners have fewer calories than sugar, but does using a sugar substitute lower the total number of calories we consume? Research indicates we might actually eat more.

Currently there are five sugar substitutes approved for use in the U.S. They compete with each other not only to provide a sense of sweetness, but to do so without leaving a detectable or unpleasant aftertaste.

Saccharin (SweetN’ Low) has always been known for its bitter or metallic aftertaste. Food processors try to minimize this by combining it with other sweeteners.

Acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K (Sunett) also has a bitter aftertaste at high concentrations.

Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) tastes odd to some people. It’s said to have a “watery” aftertaste.

Neotame is chemically similar to aspartame and reportedly does not leave an aftertaste, perhaps because it takes much less of it to create a sense of sweetness. Aspartame is 180 times sweeter than sugar. Neotame is 8,000 to 13,000 times sweeter.

 Sucrose and sucralose

Image source: Feingold Association

And then there’s sucralose (Splenda, SucraPlus). Sucralose is made from sugar. In a process called chlorination, three of the hydroxyl groups (OH) in the sugar molecule (sucrose) are replaced with chlorine (Cl) atoms. Sucralose is 600 times as sweet as sugar, twice as sweet as saccharin, and 3.3 times as sweet as aspartame. This means, of course, that you need less of it to get the same amount of sweetness. As far as I know, it has no aftertaste.

By itself, sucralose has no calories. The nutritional information on a packet of Splenda says that one gram has zero calories. That’s not quite true. The FDA allows manufacturers to list zero calories if there are fewer than five. Splenda needs to be “bulked up” with dextrose and maltodextrin, which adds 3.75 calories per gram.


Image source: Aimee’s Adventures

Splenda used to advertise with the tagline “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” Technically this is true. They were sued, however, by the manufacturer of Equal, who argued that the statement was misleading. The case was settled out of court, but when Equal took up the same battle in France, Splenda lost. The Sugar Association complained to the FTC that “Splenda is not a natural product. It is not cultivated or grown and it does not occur in nature.” In advertising, Splenda now says it “starts with sugar, tastes like sugar, but is not sugar.”
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Grapefruit and the Pill

Got Taste?

Contraceptive pillsIn my last post I described a story that appeared in The Lancet: A woman with many risk factors for a life-threatening blood clot developed a clot, a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). In addition to her many risk factors, she had been eating grapefruit for the previous three days. Here’s how the media covered the story.

The most responsible headlines

I collected the available news stories on this incident from Google News in early April. All but one featured grapefruit, which is, after all, the only thing that makes this story newsworthy. Here are the most responsible headlines:

“Grapefruit, birth control pill interaction may have caused weird blood clot case” (The Canadian Press)

“Grapefruit May Have Raised Blood Clot Risk in Unusual Case” (Medical News Today)

“Grapefruit Breakfast Shares Blame in Leg Thrombosis” (Modern Medicine)

“Hunt for DVT Cause Reveals Link to Grapefruit” (Medpage Today)

“All things in moderation” (phillyBurbs.com)

The Canadian Press, which did follow-up interviews, and Forbes.com had the best coverage. Forbes had an unfortunate headline: “Grapefruit-Heavy Diet Helped Spur Dangerous Clot.” The diet wasn’t grapefruit heavy. As I’ve mentioned before, journalists are often not allowed to write their own headlines. The subhead was much better: “The fruit, combined with contraceptive pill and a genetic mutation, almost cost woman her leg, doctors say.”
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"Killer" grapefruit?

Got Taste?

A few months ago, in a post on medical journalism, I noted: “The unstated assumption … is that ‘scaring the bejesus out of people’ is a recognized journalistic practice when it comes to health news.” This post describes a medical case in which grapefruit played a minor role. The next post illustrates how the media turned this innocent, everyday item into an object of fear.


Image source: J. Tome

The British medical journal The Lancet recently published the case report of a 42-year old woman who developed pain in her low back, left buttock, and left leg after a 90-minute car trip. The next day, when her leg had turned purple, she went to an emergency room. She was light headed, short of breath, and had difficulty walking. Her medications included Levothyroxine (Synthroid) for low thyroid levels and birth control pills, the estrogen/progestin combination type.

On examination, the woman was found to have a blood clot in her leg, a deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) that extended from her hip to her calf. What makes this story of interest to physicians is not the diagnosis, which was obvious, but the etiology: What caused this woman to have a DVT?
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The taste advantage

Got Taste?

Can being a supertaster – or a nontaster – affect your health? There are no studies that monitor the health statistics of supertasters from childhood to old age. So there’s no definitive scientific evidence. Most pronouncements on how taste sensitivity could affect health seem to be common sense.

Supertasters dislike bitter foods, including many vegetables and some fruits. Fruits and vegetables contain cancer preventing ingredients, which supertasters may miss out on. On the other hand, supertasters are less fond of sugar, fats, and salt than nontasters. This means they’re more likely to maintain a normal weight, which in turn can decrease their chances of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Here are the details.

Fruits, vegetables, phytochemicals, flavonoids, and naringin

Fruits and vegetables

Image source: SteadyHealth.com

Plants contain chemical compounds called phytochemicals. These are non-essential nutrients – we can live without them – but they appear to play a role in preventing disease. People who eat diets rich in plants seem to have lower rates of cancer and heart disease, the major causes of death in modern times.

Flavonoids, an important phytochemical found in fruits, vegetables, chocolate, tea, and wine, have an antioxidant effect in the body. They end up neutralizing potentially damaging free radicals. An interesting side note: While flavonoids act like typical antioxidants in a test tube, that’s not what happens in the body. Our bodies see flavonoids as foreign objects and try to eliminate them. This is what creates the increased antioxidant capacity of the blood.
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Do we taste fat?

Got Taste?

The flavors that make good food taste delicious are dissolved in fat. Scientists used to think that when we ate fat, we tasted these dissolved flavors and that fat itself was tasteless. We now know that’s not quite true. But the efforts involved in isolating the “taste” of fat are considerable.

What do you “sense” when you eat fat?

To answer the question “Do we taste fat?” we first need to isolate taste from the other senses. Fats have a very distinctive texture. They have a thickness, called viscosity, and a slipperiness, called lubricity. If Jack Sprat would eat no fat, it could be because he disliked the slimy texture.

When a taste researcher asks a subject if a certain food “tastes” like fat, the subject could be detecting the texture. “Fat molecules literally press against the taste buds, producing a tactile sensation that’s interpreted by the brain as viscous, slippery or greasy.”

Fats also have an odor. Even monkeys can smell cream. As with most complex flavors, when you pinch your nose, it’s more difficult to detect fats.
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Why do we love high-fat foods?

Got Taste?

There are at least two reasons we love high-fat foods: Fats can make any food taste better and it’s in our interest, genetically, to prefer foods that the body needs.

Flavor enhancement

Most of us don’t consume our fats straight. We don’t sit down with a bottle of olive oil and eat it by the spoonful. And when did you last eat a pat of butter without first applying it to a roll or baked potato? The secret weapon of fat is its ability to interact with other foods and make them taste better.

The most interesting and tasty flavors – animal, vegetable, or dessert — are fat soluble. We prefer marbled beef to lean beef because the most enticing flavors that characterize meat have dissolved into the fat and are stored there. Fat not only carries the taste of the food it’s mixed with. It also carries the smells. The more fat in a meal, the more aroma, and aroma plays an important role in our ability to sense flavor. Without aromas, there are only the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory. Flavor is something much more complex and subtle.
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Are you a supertaster: DNA testing

Got Taste?

In the last two posts I’ve discussed counting the taste bud containers (papillae) on your tongue or using a bitter test strip to determine taste sensitivity. There’s one more option: genetic testing. A DNA analysis will reveal whether you’ve inherited the dominant gene for bitter taste sensitivity from both parents. If you have, there’s a high probability you’ll experience food and drink with the taste buds of a supertaster.

An analysis of your genes will not only tell you about inherited traits, like bitter taste perception and earwax type, but about your ancestry and your risk for certain diseases. Do-it-yourself genetic testing is now available on the Internet. You simply send a test tube full of saliva to a lab and the results are sent directly to you, the customer. There’s controversy in the medical profession about whether this is an advisable practice. Is it wise to absorb confusing and potentially disturbing medical information on your own or should a physician/genetics counselor spoon feed you the results?

What your genes tell you (for a price)

Test tube for genetic testing

Image source: Newsweek

Currently there are three high-profile, do-it-yourself DNA-testing companies: deCODEme, Navigenics, and 23andMe.

deCODEme will calculate your “genetic risk” for bitter taste perception, but only as part of their complete scan. Price: $985.

Navigenics position themselves above the fray of the merely curious. They pride themselves on testing only for conditions that are actionable, for example, can you delay onset of a disease or benefit from early detection. They also limit testing to conditions where quality research shows a definitive link between genetic findings and disease. An additional constraint is that the condition must be “medically relevant.” You could make a case that bitter taste perception, which influences what we eat, is relevant to heart disease and diabetes, but the quality research is scarce. The price tag for Navigenics’ premium genetic test, the Health Compass, is $2499.

23andMe is a Silicon Valley start-up that’s received a lot of good publicity, like being the number one 2008 Invention of the Year in Time Magazine. For $399 the company will read 500,000+ locations in your genome and return the data to your computer. They provide research information on 100+ diseases, conditions, and traits. One of those traits is bitter taste perception.
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Are you a supertaster: How does PROP taste to you?

Got Taste?

You can determine your supertaster status by painting your tongue blue, as in the last post, but there’s a simpler, less messy way. It’s not as immediate as examining your tongue in the mirror, however. You’ll need to send away for a test strip that determines your bitter taste sensitivity.

A few posts back I wrote about the 1931 discovery that some people can taste the bitter chemical PCP and some cannot. An especially strong reaction to the bitter taste of this chemical — or to PROP, a related bitter chemical — indicates you’re a supertaster.

When researchers study taste sensitivity, they prepare glasses of water with increasing concentrations of PROP. By starting with plain water and progressing to denser solutions, they determine the threshold at which you become sensitive to the bitter taste. For a simple yes/no answer to the question “Am I a supertaster?” you can simply taste a piece of paper impregnated with a strong concentration of PROP. If you notice nothing but paper, you’re a nontaster. If you’re a supertaster, you’ll want to spit it out. Medium tasters can detect the bitterness, but don’t find it revolting.

You can purchase test strips online from the Supertaster Test website. They come in packages of two, cost $4.95, and the shipping and handling was only an extra $2 for California. They ship internationally and come with a money-back guarantee. The site claims the taste test is “an indispensible tool for the health-conscious food lover.”
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Are you a supertaster: Look at your tongue

Got Taste?

Your taste buds are located in small bumps on the tongue called papillae. Supertasters have more of these bumps per square centimeter of tongue than nontasters, as much as 10 times as many. So the simplest, do-it-yourself way to detect your supertaster status is to look at the papillae on your tongue.

You can make your individual taste bumps visible – and countable – by applying blue food coloring. You may be someone who avoids artificial coloring, so I’ve looked into the safety issues.

Currently there are seven artificial colors allowed in foods. The blue ones are FD&C Blue No. 1 and No. 2. Food colorings got a bad name when FD&C Red No. 2 was found to be carcinogenic. It was banned in 1976. The currently legal colors are probably not harmful, although they may “aggravate” ADD and ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Blue stained tongue

Image source: Physiology of Taste

When you apply blue food coloring to your tongue, what you’re looking for is the areas that do NOT turn blue. The pink, round dots are the papillae. The pink dots on the tongue above are spaced fairly far apart, which makes them easy to count. This could be the tongue of a mildly sensitive taster, but definitely not a supertaster.
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Are you a supertaster: Do you really want to know?

Got Taste?

Food and wine critics tend to be curious about their tasting ability and may even boast of their sensitive palates. Being a supertaster is not necessarily a reason to feel superior, however. For a wine connoisseur it’s probably a disadvantage. In an excellent series of articles on Slate, Mike Steinberger quotes a professor of oenology (the science of wine):

I would speculate that supertasters probably enjoy wine less than the rest of us. They experience astringency, acidity, bitterness, and heat (from alcohol) more intensely, and this combination may make wine–or some wine styles–relatively unappealing.

Simple curiosity is reason enough to investigate your supertaster status. Experiments involving taste also make great science lessons for kids. But one good reason to determine your taste sensitivity is that it can increase your tolerance for those who are different. We tend to assume other people experience the world in the same way we do. As with most unconscious assumptions, we may need a little wake-up call before we recognize the truth.
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The genetics of supertasting

Got Taste?

After almost 80 years of study, the genetics of taste sensitivity is still not completely understood. Just when one theory seems to account for all the facts, an exception to the rule pops up. Studying human beings may be a science, but it’s not always an exact one.

Most supertasters have a gene that appears to control their sensitivity to bitter tastes. I say “appears” because other genes also influence sensitivity to bitterness. So far geneticists have discovered 35 bitter receptor genes. According to a company that offers to test your genes, up to 20% of the variation in bitter taste sensitivity may be due to these other genes. A more academic source puts that number as high as 50%. Geneticists debate whether sensitivity to bitterness is even related to overall taste sensitivity. Experimental psychologists like Linda Bartoshuk continue to study supertasters, but many geneticists no longer use the term.

One question that interests both geneticists and those who study evolution is this: Why have nontasters survived? In the days before supermarkets, nontasters presumably couldn’t tell if what they were about to eat would be deadly. Over millions of years you’d expect natural selection to favor the dominant gene for bitter taste sensitivity. But roughly 25 percent of the population have two recessive genes for this trait and are classified as nontasters. Interestingly enough, it turns out that 25 percent of chimpanzees are also nontasters.
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What is a supertaster?

Got Taste?

Remember when George H. W. Bush said he didn’t like broccoli? “I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.” Supertasters react strongly to bitter tastes: Broccoli, brussel sprouts, grapefruit juice, and unsweetened coffee. Not liking broccoli suggests Bush might be a supertaster, although by itself it’s not a definitive test.

It turns out some people are especially sensitive to certain bitter tastes. Dr. A. L. Fox, a scientist in a DuPont chemistry lab, discovered this by accident in 1931. He was working with the chemical PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) when he accidentally released a fine crystalline cloud of the powder into the air.

When another scientist in the lab, who was standing some distance away, complained about the bitter taste, Dr. Fox noticed that he didn’t taste anything. Fox took PTC to the 1931 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and, among the 2,500 attendees he tested, 28% couldn’t taste it. Sensitivity to the bitter taste of PTC turned out to be a genetically inherited trait, like eye color and blood type.
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Orange juice and toothpaste

Got Taste?
Tooth brushing</div/>
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Image source: Please, brush your teeth (This site has an extensive collection of tooth brushing photos.)

Ever wonder why orange juice tastes awful right after you brush your teeth? The short answer is there’s something in toothpaste – sodium laurel sulfate – that interferes with your taste buds, especially the taste of sweetness. This heightens your sensitivity to sour and bitter tastes.

That’s the executive summary. Here’s a slightly longer explanation.

What’s in your toothpaste?

Probably more than you think. Toothpaste contains flourides, abrasives, detergents, thickeners, and water softeners. It also has sweeteners to hide the bad taste of all that other stuff. The ingredient that makes orange juice taste bad is a foaming detergent that cleans your teeth. As a detergent it helps dissolve food particles. The foaming action distributes the toothpaste in your mouth and carries away what the abrasives and detergents loosen up.
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How do you taste?

Got Taste?
Beatles Russian nesting dolls</div/>
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Beatles Russian nesting dolls from Russian Legacy

The reason animals, including humans, have a sense of taste is so we’ll know what’s good to eat and what’s not. But exactly how does taste happen? We experience taste as happening on the tongue, and advertisers often appeal to our “taste buds.” But is there really such a thing as a taste bud?

You can think of taste as a nested set of structures, a little like a collection of Russian nested dolls. In the Yellow Submarine dolls pictured here, John contains Paul contains George contains Ringo contains Yoko (Is that Yoko?). With taste, the tongue contains papillae, which contain taste buds, which contain taste cells, which contain taste receptors.
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A matter of taste

Got Taste?
Decorated Tongue

Tongue Tattoo from thescene

Try this simple test. Ideally you’ll need a fruit-flavored jelly bean, but you can also use hard candy, a cough drop, or a piece of Mentos “freshly picked” gum. It should be chewable and relatively odorless. You won’t need to swallow it, so you can do this even if you’re counting calories.

Hold your nose and put the jelly bean or equivalent in your mouth. Keep your nose closed and chew (with your mouth closed). Notice what you taste. If it’s fruit flavored, you probably notice a sweet and maybe a little sour taste. Now pay close attention as you let go of your nose. There’s a rush of flavor. If you were eating a strawberry jelly bean, you’d notice the complex fruit flavor that we identify as strawberry.

How we taste food: Flavor is more than taste

Technically, taste is what happens on your tongue. Flavor, on the other hand, is a combination of taste, smell, and touch. Our sense of smell allows us to distinguish thousands of different odors, whereas the tongue detects only five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (umami).

Smell Taste/>
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Taste and Smell from AllPosters.com

When you eat a jelly bean, odors are released by chewing. These gaseous molecules get pumped up into your nasal cavity, where they interact with a postage-stamp sized area on the roof of the nasal cavity called the olfactory (smell) epithelium. There are millions of olfactory receptor cells here with microscopic hairs (cilia) waving in the passing air currents. Information from the receptor cells is sent to the olfactory bulb, which is part of the brain. From there, signals get relayed to other parts of the brain, including those involved in memory, speech, emotion, and decision making. There’s a very complex process going on whenever you identify a distinct odor or flavor.
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