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A “Bitter” Tale

Not all tongues are created equal.

When anatomists examined the structures on the front of the tongue called fungiform papillae—these contain the taste buds—they discovered something odd. Some people have lots of them, while others have very few.


The tongue may tell which ailments a person could contract.

Recent studies by Linda Bartoshuk, professor of surgery (otolaryngology), and her research team have suggested that this observation is more than a mere curiosity. In a nod to the notion that “anatomy is destiny,” Bartoshuk and her team have shown that a person’s tongue may actually provide a forecast of the ailments, from colon cancer to heart disease to alcoholism, that he or she could contract.

“How a person perceives food can vary tremendously,” says Bartoshuk. “What you taste determines what you like to eat, and overall, your diet contains a number of risk factors for disease.”

According to well-established food guidelines, for example, everyone should eat more fruits and vegetables, and yet, despite good evidence that increased consumption lowers the risk of cancer, some people shy away from veggies, explaining that they taste bitter. But those who would forsake the salad bar for a steak are not simply finicky; to about a quarter of the U.S. population, vegetables can be, in their unadorned state, unpalatable. (Salt is a good way to blunt the bitterness.)

When such people are examined in Bartoshuk’s lab, they are usually found to be “supertasters”—when a drop of a chemical called PROP is placed on their tongues, the bitterness is intense. By contrast, people who are “non-tasters,” also about a quarter of the population, experience PROP as a drop of water.

The rest of us fall somewhere in between in terms of PROP sensitivity and the number of fungiform papillae, with supertasters having between three and ten times more of the tastebud-containing structures than non-tasters. Women are more likely to be supertasters than men, chefs are commonly supertasters, and at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last March, Bartoshuk reported that in a study of 200 men who'd undergone colonoscopies, supertasters ate the fewest servings of vegetables and tended to have the most colon polyps.

However, the correlation was only apparent for men over the age of 65. “The risk for chronic diseases catches up with you in time,” says Bartoshuk.

On the plus side though, supertasters tend to find the taste of fat repugnant—this is more true in females than males—and so have a lower risk for heart disease. (This difference lessens after menopause, or if supertasting men have had persistent ear infections, which damage the nerves associated with taste.) They also report finding such drinks as beer and scotch unpleasantly bitter and, as a result, they are less likely to become alcoholics.

“Taste is the gatekeeper,” says Bartoshuk. “What happens in the mouth can have lifetime effects.”  the end


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