In a previous blog installment I discussed the sense of smell and its various roles in the therapeutics of mood behavior and to some degree immunity. This week I will touch on the subject of the sense of taste and its possible place in human health.
Obviously the senses of taste and smell are intimately related (try tasting food while holding your breath). While both senses can be sources of pleasure they are also designed to be protective mechanisms when evaluating the safety of food. Smell or olfaction in animals often serves as a long range danger detector whereas taste acts as a close-up last moment food checking system.
While perusing the research it was remarkable how inconsistent the qualities in taste can run from person to person. Due to genetic variabilities sensations of assorted qualities of sweet sour and bitter for instance can vary widely often having direct impacts on one’s health.
A sixth taste?
An example of this was demonstrated when researchers found that humans can detect a sixth taste namely fat. They found that people with a high sensitivity to the taste of fat tended to eat less fatty foods and were less likely to be overweight. They found that people have a taste threshold for fat and that these thresholds vary from person to person; some people have a high sensitivity to the taste while others do not.
Can the temperature of the food we eat affect the intensity of its taste? It depends on the taste according to a new study. Researchers showed that changes in the temperature of foods and drinks have an effect on the intensity of sour bitter and astringent tastes (e.g. cranberry juice) but not sweetness.
Sweet another facet of taste that may impact weight gain may be enhanced by the endocannabinoids system which acts directly on taste receptors on the tongue. Endocannabinoids are substances similar to THC the active ingredient in marijuana. Produced in the brain and body they bind with cannabinoid receptors to help regulate appetite and many other processes involved in health and disease. Endocannabinoids act in the brain to increase appetite and also modulate taste receptors on the tongue to increase the response to sweets. This also may explain the phenomenon of the munchies for those that consume marijuana.
The bitter end
The taste sensations of bitterness can differ as implied above possibly through genetic variability.
Bitterness is classically associated with plant-borne poisons and toxins but these types of taste buds and sensors can also be found in the lungs of all places. The researchers say that in the lungs the taste receptors are not clustered in buds yet they respond to substances that have a bitter taste implying that the lungs taste buds are not dependent on the brain for translation. Simply inhaling bitter compounds acted as bronchodilators in animal models of obstructed asthma.
It is conceivable that astute evaluation in the varying degrees of taste perception between individuals may impact how we view food consumption and subsequent weight gain and therefore weight loss strategies.