Learning how to like bitter flavors isn’t just in your mind; its also in your saliva, research says.

We’ll all agree that we did hate the taste of coffee as a child, but we eventually grew and now can’t help it without a morning cup of joe. Same goes for dark chocolate; or try chewing on a piece of cola nut and you’d know what we’re talking about. The bitter taste is really awful yet people just can’t stay away from masticating stuff like … what! But thanks to the “SPIT Laboratory,” we know exactly what happens when we get a bitter taste. It seems that bitter sensation and that awkward face you make has a lot more to do with your tongue itself than you thought — literally.

Related media: Purdue’s SPIT Lab

A Salivary Tale About Bitterness

You’re probably wondering what in the bitter name of bitterness do people seem to like the bitterness of dark stouts; likewise dark chocolate, red wine, black cafficinos are all examples of popular food with such a distinct bitterness. In a 2018 report from the SPIT Laboratory at Purdue, researchers claimed that even those of us who prefer crisp pilsners and rich stouts might benefit from trying more Indian pale ales (IPAs), and in a matter of time, the bitter flavors can actually change our perception of taste.

Also, you’ve probably had that awful experience of tasting something that you’ve eventually gotten used to. In fact, there’s a pretty good evidence that you’ll develop an ability to enjoy bitter food more as you grow older, and that’s why children, especially, are sensitive to it. There’s a reason why kids notoriously despise eating their greens, and that’s what led Dr Cordelia Running, the director at the SPIT Laboratory, to explore the actual mechanism behind this transformation.

Let’s debunk a few saliva myths: The saliva isn’t just what keeps your mouth moist. It actually serves as a biochemical medium within the mouth; that is to say, every chemical reaction that takes place inside your mouth, happens because the saliva acts as a catalyst in breaking down food molecules. Dr. Running and her team decided to take a closer look at the mouth’s most faithful companion.

Just Don’t SPIT It Out

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Most bitter foods like dark chocolate get their biting from chemicals known as polyphenols. For this study, the Running-led team (and that’s the coolest name ever for an anatomical research) hypothesized that adapting to flavors like these comes from being better able to process these chemicals. In efforts to test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited 64 participants and tasked them to start a weekly alternating dieting plan scheduled for about six weeks.

In the first week, participants were asked to give up bitter food altogether; later on, they were asked to consume three glasses of polyphenol-rich chocolate almond milk daily. And just as the team hypothesized, the participants who had the opportunity to consume dark chocolate as part of their routine, naturally began to produce a new sort of protein in the saliva — the ones that easily binds and captures those polyphenols. And at the same time, the participants reported that the more they enjoyed the drink, the less they experienced the bitterness or astringent.

By now, you’re probably wondering why this whole article is from the SPIT Lab alone. That’s a great name for such a research, (and that occasional rock band, too). It’s very descriptive, we know. But this research into bitterness isn’t the only thing to come out from SPIT, (pun intended). And you’re also wondering what does SPIT even mean for crying out loud. “SPIT Lab” is acronym for Saliva, Perception, Ingestion, and Tongue Laboratory — quirky name for such a workplace, huh? — and it’s focus is on assessing the mechanism of eating and tasting.

Bitter Or Spicy? It’s Seltzer

There was yet again another experiment known as the desensitization test that also focused on the experience of eating spicy and bitter food. In this study, a group of participants were fed a combination of bitter seltzer water and chili-oil-spiked ginger beer— either they took one, or took ‘em both. Yuck! The researchers found that the sensitization absolutely didn’t occur.

What this means is that, taking in more spiciness didn’t make the next spicy drink taste even hotter. Similarly, that effect was seen with the bitter drink. However, one spicy drink did, which made the next drink even taste milder. Perhaps the spicy ginger beer made the bitter seltzer water taste that much more bitter  — due to the contrast between the two flavors. 

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Tue, Mar 12, 2019.


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