Are Your Taste Buds Dulled? You May Be Prone to Obesity

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If your tasting capacity is diminished or desensitized, you may be more likely to pack on the pounds as a result of seeking out more sugar.

In a study that intentionally dulled the taste receptors of people using an herbal tea containing Gymnema Sylvestre, which blocks sweet receptors, researchers from Cornell University discovered that those whose taste buds were the most heavily suppressed were likelier to pine for greater amounts of sugar.

Credit: John Benson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“We found that the more people lost sensitivity to sweetness, the more sugar they wanted in their foods,” said lead author Robin Dando, assistant professor of Food Science, whose work appeared online in the journal Appetite.

After zapping participants’ taste receptors with the herbal tea, the researchers allowed them to flavor a bland drink with their preferred level of sweetness. Those with compromised taste receptors sought out more sugar, ultimately preferring a drink with that was between 8 to 12 percent sucrose. By comparison, sodas are generally in the 10 percent ballpark.

“That’s not a coincidence,” said Dando, whose new work builds off prior research linking obesity and being overweight to one’s perceptions of taste.

Related: Diet Soda Linked to Obesity and Heart Disease

“Others have suggested that the overweight may have a reduction in their perceived intensity of taste. So, if an overweight or obese person has a diminished sense of taste, our research shows that they may begin to seek out more intense stimuli to attain a satisfactory level of reward,” he explained.

In other words, those who are overweight or obese may be perceiving the intake of less sugar and, in turn, seeking more to fulfill a sweet taste sensation. The new study marks an important development in understanding the complex web of weight gain and taste appeal,  and puts one’s taste buds in the thick of the science.

“The gustatory system – that is, the taste system we have – may serve as an important nexus in understanding the development of obesity. With this in mind, taste dysfunction should be considered as a factor,” said Dando.

Related: Researchers Study How Fat Content Affects Ice Cream Taste

The small study, which included 51 subjects, had people drink varying amounts of the herbal tea as a way to stratify the impact of taste suppression; some experienced low levels of taste inhibition, and others had more of a major blockage. The researchers found that those who consumed more highly concentrated levels of the taste suppressor were more likely to gravitate to additional sweeteners.

“Research suggests a weaker sense of taste in people with obesity, with the assumption that a debilitated taste response increases the desire for more intensely tasting stimuli to compensate for decreased taste input,” write the study authors in Appetite.

“Our results show that an attenuation in the perceived taste intensity of sweeteners correlates with shifted preference and altered hedonic response to select sweet foods,” they report. “This suggests that those with a diminished sense of taste may desire more intense stimuli to attain a satisfactory level of reward, potentially influencing eating habits to compensate for a lower gustatory input.”

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.