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Researchers found dulled taste buds caused subjects to seek out more flavor (and calories).

Jillian Kramer
July 31, 2017

Losing your sense of taste might sound like the worst thing in the world. But in addition to dulling the umami of shiitake mushrooms or the sweetness an apple pie, you'll also suffer something else when you lose your taste buds: you'll likely gain weight, a new study finds.

First, here's a little background on how your taste buds work. On your tongue, you've got five different kinds of taste buds, each one meant to pick up on one of the five tastes: sugar, sour, bitter, salty, and savory, also commonly called umami. As we age, we lose taste buds, and with fewer buds on our tongue, tastes are dulled. Our sense of taste can also be lost, at least temporarily, when we suffer an illness that affects our noses, throats, or sinuses, the parts of our body that control our sense of smell, because smell contributes heavily to taste.

But what does losing a sense of taste have to do with weight gain? That's where this new research, conducted by Cornell University food scientists, comes in. They asked participants in their study to sip on an herbal tea containing Gymnema Sylvestre, an herb that has been shown to temporarily dull taste buds. Some participants received a low dose of the herb; others received medium or high doses. And as their taste buds were dulled, the participants were asked to add their preferred amount of sweetness to bland beverages.

All of the participants gravitated toward levels of 8 to 12 percent sucrose, the scientists found. But those whose taste buds that had been most significantly compromised needed additional sweetness. In fact, when sipping on a 16-ounce soda, which we can all agree is already very sweet, those participants with a 20 percent taste loss needed to add another teaspoon of sugar to the beverage to make it taste good, the study found. And this led the scientists to conclude that people with dulled taste may gravitate toward sweeter—and thereby higher-calorie—drinks and food, which would of course cause them to gain weight.

"Other [studies] have suggested the overweight may have a reduction in their perceived intensity of taste," said the study's lead author Robin Dando. "So, if an overweight or obese person has a diminished sense of taste, our research shows that they may begin to seek out more intense stimuli to attain a satisfactory level of reward."

Unfortunately, the study doesn't offer any clever way around this problem. If your taste buds are dulled, of course you'll want to seek out more flavorful food, and it would be tough to reduce yourself to what you perceive is flavorless food for the rest of your life. That'd be like going on a cleanse that never ends—and no one can sustain that.