Drinking coffee makes your taste buds more sensitive to sweetness


Sweet food is even sweeter when you drink coffee.

This is shown by the result of research from Aarhus University. The results have just been published in the scientific journal Foods.

Coffee lovers with a penchant for dark chocolate now have a scientific explanation for why the two are a perfect match. A study from Aarhus University shows that coffee makes you more sensitive to sweetness.

In the study, 156 test subjects had their sense of smell and taste tested before and after drinking coffee.

The researchers found no changes tin their sense of smell, but they found that the sense of taste was affected.

“When people were tested after drinking coffee, they became more sensitive to sweetness, and less sensitive to bitterness,” says associate professor at Aarhus University Alexander Wieck Fjældstad, who was involved in carrying out the study.

To rule out the possibility that caffeine in the coffee could be a factor, the researchers repeated the experiment using decaffeinated coffee. With the same result.

We are easily affected by sweetness and bitterness

“It’s probably some of the bitter substances in the coffee that create this effect,” says Alexander Wieck Fjældstad.

“This may explain that if you enjoy a piece of dark chocolate with your coffee, it’s taste is much milder, because the bitterness is downplayed and the sweetness is enhanced,” he continues.

According to the researcher, the study sheds some light on a new aspect of our knowledge about our senses of smell and taste.

“We already know that our senses have an effect on each other, but it’s a surprise that our registration of sweetness and bitterness is so easily influenced.”

According to Alexander Wieck Fjældstad, the results maybe provide us with a better understanding of how our taste buds work.

“More research in this area could have significance for how we regulate the way in which we use sugar and sweeteners as food additives. Improved knowledge can potentially be utilised to reduce sugar and calories in our food, which would be beneficial for a number of groups, including those who are overweight and diabetes patients,” he explains.

Background for the results:

The study is a comparative study in which trial participants act as their own controls.

The study is financed by Arla Foods and Region Midtjylland. The sponsors had no say, roles, or responsibilities in relation to the study, including (but not limited to) study design, data collection, management, analysis, interpretation of data, writing of the manuscript, or the decision to publish. Neither of the authors have any conflict of interest to declare.

Alexander Wieck Fjælstad is affiliated with a research group investigating enjoyment in Oxford as well as at the Flavor Clinic, Øre-Næse-Halsafdelingen in Holstebro.

The taste of food is a key factor in food choice. As taste perception varies between individuals, individual taste perception might be important regarding food choice, personal nutrition, and, further, quality of life and development of chronic diseases.

Thus, wellbeing may be improved and chronic diseases controlled by considering the taste of foods that are consumed regularly. Then again, the consumption of vegetables, fruits, and berries (VFB) is essential for health and wellbeing.

Nevertheless, VFB are consumed less than recommended; in Finland, only every tenth man and every fifth woman ate VFB the recommended amount (500 g per day) in 2017, and the consumption has decreased during recent years [1].

This unfavorable behavior may be partly due to the taste of VFB that does not attract all people. At the same time, consuming more calories than expending, especially consuming energy-dense foods and beverages, is increasing the prevalence of overweight individuals and obesity as well as associated morbidity [2]. To promote a healthier diet, individual motives behind food choices must be investigated.

People can perceive at least five taste modalities: sour, bitter, sweet, salty, and umami. These tastes are perceived individually, and most variation seems to occur in umami and bitter perception [3,4,5].

Individual taste sensitivity can be measured using several psychophysical methods [6]. Threshold sensitivity measures the lowest concentration of a tastant that is either detected (detection threshold) or identified correctly (recognition threshold). The threshold concentrations are typically very low and thus, may be irrelevant in explaining food liking or consumption [7,8].

Another commonly used measurement of taste perception is intensity rating. The subjects evaluate the intensity of sensation elicited by a tastant at a certain concentration level. The concentration is typically above the threshold.

The third commonly used measure is a PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil) taster status. It is a phenotype related to a bitter receptor genotype TAS2R38 at least. Sensitivity to PROP has been applied to classify subjects as supertasters, medium tasters, and non-tasters [9].

In addition, PROP bitterness intensity has been found to correlate with intensity perception of other tastes [10,11,12,13], suggesting that the PROP taster status might represent general taste sensitivity, although some have challenged this view [5,6,11,14].

Considering the taste perception of food, intensity measures of PROP or other tastants may be more relevant measures of individual taste sensitivity than the threshold measures [8].

Little is known about the association between taste sensitivity and food pleasantness or food consumption behavior, such as consumption frequency, or habits to mask tastes in food (for example, masking the bitter taste of coffee with milk or sugar).

Higher sweet sensitivity indicated a lower intake of sweet foods and a lower liking of some sweet beverages [7]. However, in other studies, sweet sensitivity was not related to sweet food-related behavior [15,16], such as to the importance of adding sugar in coffee or tea [16].

Lipchock et al. (2017) [17] reported that daily coffee consumers were more sensitive to caffeine, the bitter compound found in coffee than those who consumed coffee rarely or not at all. Furthermore, salty and sour taste perception correlated with alcohol intake, but they were not significant predictors of alcohol intake in a multivariate-adjusted model [18].

Research has focused on PROP taste [19,20,21,22,23] and taste genetics [21,24,25,26,27] concerning food consumption behavior and liking. Thus, it is essential to investigate using other tastants whether taste sensitivity is related to food pleasantness and consumption.

This study is part of a large research project concerning individual differences in sensory perception and food-related behavior. Previously, we reported inter-individual variations in color [28] and taste perception [5,29].

The study population was segmented into taste sensitivity groups for each taste modality (sour, bitter, sweet, salty, and umami) based on intensity judgments of aqueous solutions [5].

The objective of this study was to investigate further whether taste sensitivity is associated with food consumption behavior and recalled pleasantness of certain foods and beverages typical to the Finnish food culture.

The studied consumption habits included weekly intake of VFB (as a number of portions), habits regarding the masking or modifying the taste of food, and use-frequency of specific foods and beverages. In addition to taste sensitivity, sex, age, education, and BMI were studied as possible explanatory factors for food consumption and pleasantness.

In this study, the associations between taste sensitivity, food consumption behavior, and recalled pleasantness were investigated with 199 adult participants. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first time that the perception of five taste modalities has been investigated in relation to food consumption and pleasantness.

Thus far, research has been focused on the relationship between PROP and food-related behavior, whereas other tastants or taste qualities have gained only little attention. Additionally, large-scale studies with a varied group of subjects are scarce.

The consumption habits regarding some items were related to taste sensitivity. However, taste sensitivity was not related to the recalled pleasantness of the foods and beverages.

As was expected, pleasantness was the main predictor of the use-frequency components, except for pungent foods. These results highlight the importance of studying the actual behavior toward food and not just liking.

Taste Sensitivity, Food Consumption, and Pleasantness

Bitter sensitivity was related to masking bitter tastes and pungent food consumption. Earlier studies on pungency or spicy foods behavior have focused on PROP taste.

Higher sensitivity to PROP has been reported to predict a more intense pungency perception [12,23,30]. In a large scale study, the pungency of pure capsaicin correlated with PROP bitterness and taste intensities of other tastants, although the correlation coefficients were rather weak, at least for PROP (0.199) [12].

In the same study, PROP tasters perceived pungency in a food matrix more strongly than non-tasters. PROP bitterness perception was not related to the perception of oral pungency in another sample of Finnish subjects [31].

Intensity perception of oral pungency and liking of oral pungency or spicy foods have been shown to associate negatively when the subjects were grouped into pungency likers, medium-likers, and non-likers, although the correlation between intensity and liking was only −0.16 [31].

If bitter and pungent sensitivities correlated, bitter sensitivity could also associate negatively with pungent food liking. However, this theory was not supported in our study, as bitter sensitivity did not explain pungent food pleasantness. However, bitter sensitivity explained pungent food consumption, as bitter sensitive subjects reported eating pungent items less frequently.

Masking a bitter taste in food or modifying the taste of food by bitter sensitive subjects was shown in the habits of adding milk to coffee, and adding ketchup to a meal when eating it. Additionally, the habit of consuming coffee was less common among bitter sensitive subjects. However, the pleasantness or use-frequency of bitter non-alcoholic beverages, including coffee, was not related to bitter sensitivity.

The relationship between coffee consumption and bitter sensitivity has been shown earlier with other kinds of study design. Lipchock et al. [17] showed, though with a small sample size, that daily coffee drinkers rated the intensity of pure caffeine higher than those who consumed coffee irregularly or not at all.

Among Italian subjects, PROP sensitivity was not related to coffee liking, but interestingly, the PROP non-tasters added sugar to coffee more frequently than medium or supertasters although they perceived the coffee as milder than others did [32].

Some findings were surprising and challenging to explain. Sour sensitivity was related to the habits of adding sugar/honey to tea and soy sauce to a meal as well as to the consumption frequency of foods with salty and savory dominant tastes.

Umami sensitivity was also related to the habit of adding sweetness to tea. Adding ketchup to a meal was also more common among the most sensitive to salt and sweetness. Ketchup is typically a strong-tasting sauce that contains spices, vinegar, sugar, and salt.

The considerable amounts of sugar and salt in ketchup may explain why salty and sweet sensitivities were related to ketchup consumption. Concerning these results, there are no other published studies to compare so far. Thus, more large-scale studies are needed.

Umami sensitivity was related to umami-tasting foods: salty-and-savory foods, and weekly vegetable consumption. The result that lower umami sensitivity was related to more frequent consumption of umami-containing foods supports the idea that lower sensitivity to a taste demands higher concentrations of equivalent tastants to reach liking and increased consumption.

This idea may depend on a food matrix or a taste as the relationship was opposite regarding ketchup and bitter, salty, or sweet sensitivity. In the case of vegetables, the most sensitive to umami consumed more portions of vegetables per week than the least sensitive. As umami is also part of vegetable taste profiles [33] and umami intensity is affected by the processing of vegetables [34], umami sensitive people might perceive a more intense umami taste from vegetables, making them more palatable.

The descriptor of overall taste sensitivity, the taste sensitivity score, was related to three items only: consumption of pungent foods, coffee, and adding ketchup to a meal. These findings indicate that studying taste modality-specific sensitivities rather than general indicators of taste sensitivity might give better insights into the relationship between taste perception and food-related behavior.

Based on earlier studies, other associations may have existed. First, in our results, bitter (caffeine) sensitivity was not related to either vegetable liking or consumption, a tendency that has earlier been explained with PROP sensitivity [21,23] and one which, in turn, has been shown to associate with caffeine perception [32,35]. Therefore, there could have been some association with bitter sensitivity and vegetable-related behavior in this study, too.

Second, taste sensitivity was not related to alcohol pleasantness or intake. An earlier study found that perceived NaCl and sour taste intensities correlated positively with yearly alcohol intake [18].

In multiple regression analysis, they were not significant predictors of intake, but PROP intensity perception predicted alcohol intake as lower sensitivity indicated higher intake [18]. It must be noted that in our study, the consumption of alcoholic beverages was low, which may contribute to the results.

Third, sweet sensitivity could have been related to sweet-and-fatty foods or sweet beverage/sweet item liking and/or consumption. Jayasinghe et al. [7] reported that among New Zealand women, a higher sweet sensitivity indicated lower consumption frequency of baking/sweets (e.g., chocolates, biscuits, cakes) which were reported to be consumed more often than once per day.

Furthermore, total sweet food intake was lower (on average seven times per day) among sweet sensitive subjects, as well as liking of fruit drinks and fruit juices when liking of 16 sweet beverages was measured. On the contrary, Low et al. [8] found that sweet taste sensitivity was not related to intake of total sugars, added sugar, or sugar-sweetened foods. Additionally, sweetness sensitivity was not related to sweet food liking or consumption in other studies [15,36].

Furthermore, among young adults, sweet perception was not related to sweet food behaviors including intake of confectionery, fruits, or vegetables, or the importance of adding sugar to tea or coffee or avoiding sugar-sweetened or fizzy drinks [16].

Tepper [23] reviewed links between PROP tasting and food-related behavior. The links were not confirmed as there were discrepancies in results between studies. A vast range of methods can explain some discrepancies. Some studies show that the association between PROP tasting and food consumption behavior may depend on sex, age, fungiform papillae density, or personality trait [21,23].

It seems that PROP tasters can perceive more intensively or differentiate some other properties more easily than non-tasters, but this might not always translate into hedonics or consumption of foods [23]. However, earlier studies have found that PROP sensitivity might negatively affect behavior related to pungent, bitter, and creamy foods [23].

In a more recent study, a higher PROP bitterness perception was related to a lower liking and consumption of not only bitter but other vegetables among young adults [21].

Catanzaro et al. [19] found no significant association between PROP tasting and recalled liking of foods that have been reported to be related to PROP taster status.

In their study, PROP intensity correlated statistically significantly with the liking of dark chocolate and chili peppers, but the correlation coefficients were only −0.155 and −0.144, respectively.

This study was cross-sectional; thus, no cause and effect relationship can be concluded. A study by Wise et al. [37] has indicated that reduced sugar consumption causes a more intense sweetness perception in a food matrix but does not affect pleasantness ratings.

In the case of salt, salt perception did not change but preference for higher levels of salt increased with increasing salt intake [38].

In a more recent study, perception or pleasantness was not affected by the intake of salt [39]. Noel et al. [40] showed that repeated exposure to MSG in broth diminished umami intensity perception, as well as desire for and intake of savory foods at an ad libitum meal.

Background Factors, Food Consumption, and Pleasantness
Sex and age, as well as BMI in some cases, were related to pleasantness components, but they explained only a relatively small proportion of pleasantness in regression models. They were also related to many food consumption variables.

In our study, females liked pungent foods more but males consumed them more. Earlier, pungent food liking [41] and chili pepper consumption [30] were related to the male sex, and spicy food consumption has been shown to be independent of sex [42].

Törnwall et al. [31] also found that genetic factors could explain 18–58% of liking and perception of pungency and spicy foods. Additionally, some personality factors, such as food adventurousness, can explain spicy food consumption and liking [23,30,31].

We found no connection between pungent food pleasantness and consumption, although it would be logical that those who like pungency would consume it more than those who dislike it. Ludy and Mattes [42] found this logic with a small sample size, as regular spicy food users liked chili pungency and spicy foods more than non-users.

They also found that many of the users had been already introduced to spicy foods in childhood, indicating the relevance of early and repeated exposure to food-related behavior. It should be noted that in our study, a limited number of pungent foods was included.

There were also other sex-related differences. Males liked bitter-and-astringent alcohol more and consumed salty-and-savory items more frequently, while females favored sweet-and-fatty foods. Earlier studies have also found that Finnish females liked sweet-and-fatty foods or sweet foods more than males did [41,43].

Valsta et al. [1] reported that women had consumed more VFB than men during recent years. We found only that females ate more portions of berries per week. In use-frequency components, sex did not have a significant role in explaining the consumption of VFB, but males had higher scores for bitter vegetable pleasantness.

As age increased, the pleasantness score increased for strong-tasting vegetables, berries, salty-and-savory foods, and bitter non-alcoholic beverages, whereas the younger subjects liked salty-and-fatty foods and sweet beverages more. Valsta et al. [1] showed that in Finland, the number of people consuming the recommended amount of vegetables decreases and the number of people consuming the recommended amount of fruits and berries increases by age.

In accordance with Valsta et al. [1], we found the consumption of fruits (portions per week) and berries (use-frequency) to increase by age, but we also found an increase by age in the use-frequency (components) of bitter vegetables.

The older subjects seemed to like and consume more strong tastes as bitterness was not a barrier for liking, and those foods with a strong umami taste were considered pleasant. The younger subjects’ avoidance of bitterness was supported by the frequency with which they added milk to coffee.

The oldest subjects who were also less sensitive to sour used to add soy sauce to a meal when eating it more frequently than more sensitive subjects. One explanation could be that the oldest subjects try to compensate for their weakened taste sensitivity by adding soy sauce to food.

The oldest subjects also added sugar to berries more frequently than the younger participants despite their taste sensitivity, which might explain why older age was related to a higher liking and consumption of berries.

Among Finnish consumers, increased berry liking has been linked to female sex and older age as well as some personality traits [44]. In this study population, the older subjects were less taste sensitive [29] which could explain the liking of strong and bitter-tasting foods and beverages.

However, taste sensitivity was not a significant predictor in regression analysis. Another possible explanation might be becoming accustomed to strong tastes after repeated exposure with age.

Then again, cultural and social aspects could explain why the younger participants liked more salty-and-fatty foods and sweet beverages. Coffee culture in Finland has evolved, and younger participants might be becoming used to consuming their coffee with milk, such as in cappuccinos or lattes.

BMI was related to the consumption frequency of berries (both weekly portions and use-frequency component), the pleasantness of bitter vegetables, and the pleasantness and consumption frequency of fruits; the lower the BMI, the higher the score for these variables. In contrast, those subjects with a higher BMI liked sweet beverages more.

These results reflect the assumption that people with a lower BMI might have a healthier diet. However, BMI was not a significant predictor for salty-and-fatty or sweet-and-fatty food consumption or pleasantness.

In a recent study, Low et al. [36] found no correlation between BMI and sweet food liking or consumption. In the study by Guido et al. [45], BMI was not related to the preference variables formed with factor analysis: vegetables, fruits, spicy, and milk products. Likewise, there were no differences between lean and obese subjects in the liking of foods with different predominant taste qualities. In an earlier study, the lean subjects liked salty/savory and sweet foods more than the obese subjects did [46].

Education level was related only to the habits of adding milk to coffee and sugar or honey to tea. Education could have been related more extensively to food consumption because education is one indicator of socioeconomic position, which can have an impact on dietary habits [47]. Valsta et al. [1] also reported differences in VFB consumption between education levels as the better-educated people consumed more of these than the lower educated ones. In this study, no relationship was found between education and the consumption of VFB. This might be due to the larger proportion of better-educated participants in this study.

Aarhus University


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