Bitter Taste Buds Affect How Much You Drink

People with super sensitive taste buds may be less likely to overindulge in alcohol, according to a new study.

Researchers found the extent to which people can detect bitter tastes in food and drinks appears to influence how much alcohol they drink. The study showed so-called “supertasters” who were most sensitive to bitterness drank less, on average, than “nontasters” who couldn’t detect bitter tastes.

The findings indicate that genetic variations in peoples’ taste buds may affect the sensations people get from drinking alcoholic beverages. Researchers say these variations, in combination with other environmental factors may determine the risk of drinking too much alcohol.

"We do not all share the same oral sensory experiences from foods and beverages," says researcher Valerie B. Duffy, RD, associate professor in the School of Allied Health at the University of Connecticut, in a news release. "Some of the differences in oral sensation are under genetic control, and these differences can explain some of the variability in what we like and ultimately choose to eat and drink."

But Duffy says genetic variation in taste is perfectly normal, and doesn’t mean that some people are taste dysfunctional and others are not.

Bitter Tastes May Determine How Much Alcohol You Drink

In the study, which appears in the November issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, researchers tested the tasting abilities of 84 healthy adults who were light to moderate drinkers.

Each of the volunteers rated the bitterness of five solutions containing a bitter compound called PROP, and researchers took blood tests to screen for the gene that allows people to taste this bitter compound.

"Individuals who cannot taste the bitterness of PROP, or taste the bitterness of PROP as weak, are called nontasters,” says Duffy. “Those who taste the most bitterness are called supertasters.”

The volunteers were also asked about how frequently during a year they drink beer, wine, wine coolers, and liquor.

The study showed that nontasters drank more alcohol than the supertasters. For example, those who tasted the least bitterness in the PROP solution averaged drinking alcoholic beverages about five to six times per week. But those who tasted the most bitterness drank alcohol an average of two to three times per week.

Duffy says that previous research has shown that PROP nontasters experience more positive tastes, such as sweetness, and fewer negative sensations such as bitterness, irritation, or astringency from alcoholic beverages. The lack of bitter perception may make them more likely to drink alcoholic beverages.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Duffy, V. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, November 2004; vol 28. News release, University of Connecticut.