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How Sugar Influences Your Sense of Taste

Written by:  Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT - Life Time Fitness

Sugar is more readily available in our diet than ever before and our sweet-tooth nation has rapidly developed sugar-related health problems, including diabetes and obesity.But do Americans really have a sugar crazy, or are our taste buds just paralyzed?  A recent study out of the United Kingdom brings some confirmation on what sugar can do to our taste preferences and the resulting spin into a vicious cycle of cravings and consumption of high-sugar foods. Got yourself a sweet tooth?  Read on and learn how to awaken those unconscious taste buds.

The Study

A recent study out of the universities of Bangor and Bristol in the United Kingdom focused on sugar preferences amongst obese, overweight and lean populations when consuming sugar-filled beverages.  The researchers found that overweight and obese people had a dulled sensitivity to the sweetness in these drinks and an enhanced subconscious liking for sweet food.[i]  When testing their lean population, including people who did not already have a preference for sweets, they found that having them drink two sugary drinks for just four weeks dulled their sensitivity to the taste (reducing their enjoyment of the drink) and also enhanced their preference for sweeter foods/drinks. 

This study shows how powerful just a small amount of sweet food/drink is needed to change your perception of taste. It also provides an answer to why Americans are high-sugar consumers.  When we consume high sugar foods/drinks frequently, our taste buds become more and more acclimated to the taste and have a dulling affect.  Such treats become less of a reward, and instead, cause you to crave more sweet foods and drinks and start compromising your health, weight and energy.

Sugar, sugar everywhere

Although the study primarily focused on sugar-filled drinks, we can learn that the frequency of sweet foods can have a similar effect.  When considering sugar-filled beverages, the typical American may only think of soda pop.  But consider your mocha coffee, flavored milk or sweetened juice that gets you started every morning. Like the overweight and obese population in this study, you might not even think some of your high-sugar food and beverages taste sweet anymore. 

The average American consumes anywhere between 90 and 180 pounds of sugar per year.  That is, at minimum, about 22 teaspoons per day.  To put that in perspective, there are about 8 teaspoons of sugar in an average 12-ounce soda. Astonishing when you consider that, just a century ago, we were consuming less than 1 pound of sugar per year.

A huge 21st century influx of processed foods can take part of the blame here, whether it’s the obvious culprits of sweetened beverages, cookies and snacks, or less obvious sugar-filled breads, salad dressing — even pasta sauce. Whatever your “poison,” our nation is consuming an astonishing amount of sugar and it is taking a toll on how we actually taste food. 

Reset button

Natural is sweet enough and, every day, I educate my clients to embrace a natural, whole foods diet and ditch as many processed foods as possible. I often hear they “need” something sweet at the end of the day or after each healthy meal. But it could be these cravings are a result of having sugar-induced foods, snacks, and beverages throughout the day.

Try this taste test. Eat some real dark chocolate (at least 80-85% cocoa, or cacao).  If you can’t stand the taste or find it bitter, you’ve definitely got diluted taste buds. 

The best way to reset your taste buds is by eliminating as much sugar from your diet as possible. Start by tracking how much sugar you typically consume and pay attention to how much is in your favorite foods.  If you are consuming sugar-filled beverages, start substituting with water.  If you typically stop at a coffee shop, go for a plain roast and add your own full fat creamer.  Embrace a whole foods diet with plenty of protein, fruits and vegetables, and nuts, seeds and oils. 

Try this practice (really, it’s what you should be eating anyway) for at least two to three weeks.  At that point, you might already feel better overall and see a reduction in sugar cravings, weight, and energy crashes. But a final test is to add one of those sugar-filled food or drinks back in and notice the difference.  When my clients do this, they can’t believe how sweet that food or beverage tastes now, even though they once consumed it on a regular basis. But remember, it only takes consistent intake of that food or drink for as little as a month to dull those taste buds again. Save those sugar-filled choices for an occasional treat, not an everyday food. 

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader

[i] Taste perception and implicit attitude toward sweet related to body mass index and soft drink supplementation; Francesco Sartor, Lucy F Donaldson, et al.  Appetite (2011),   Accessed August 12, 2011. 

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