Kelly McSweeney

Sep 15th 2021

Sugar and the Science of Taste


A new study on the science of taste suggests that the taste of sugar could make people feel more full, therefore helping to regulate appetite. But before you rush to grab a cookie to curb your hunger, consider that other studies have shown that sugar and fat trick the brain into wanting more food. Nutrition is complicated.

Researchers are trying to understand the complicated physiology of hunger, satiety and overeating. A better understanding of the relationship between flavor and hunger could lead to new treatments for obesity, a disease that is common, serious and costly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Does Sweet Taste Reduce Appetite?

The new study, published in the journal Nutrients, was conducted by a team of Austrian and German researchers. They explored how flavor might trigger our bodies to respond to what we eat. In the age of nutrition apps and fad diets, many people are familiar with the concept of counting calories. The basic idea is if you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. But the human body runs on biology, which is often much more complicated than mathematics.

The Austrian-German team examined how the perception of sweetness affected the regulation of satiety — in other words, whether tasting something sweet made you feel hungry or full. The study was limited — it only looked at 27 healthy male adults — but the results strongly suggest that more research on this topic would be worthwhile.

The participants tasted different forms of sugar and then waited two hours before eating breakfast. They either had glucose (simple sugar), sucrose (table sugar) or one of the sugars mixed with lactisole, a substance that reduces the sensation of sweetness. All of the solutions had the same energy content so that the researchers could isolate sweetness as a factor. Basically, everyone consumed the same amount of sugar, although some of the sugar tasted sweet and some did not.

When participants had the sucrose and lactisole cocktail, they ate around 13% more calories at breakfast. The researchers also noted that those participants had reduced body temperatures. Through blood tests, they also found lower concentrations of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that the researchers note has an appetite-controlling effect.

“This result suggests that sucrose, regardless of its energy content, modulates the regulation of satiety and energy intake via the sweet taste receptor,” Barbara Lieder, one of the study’s authors, said in an announcement released by ScienceDaily.

Interestingly, they did not see the same results with the glucose and lactisole test solution. Additional research could help to explain why, but the researchers suggest it could be because glucose and sucrose activate the sweet receptor in different ways.

How Taste Buds Work

The new study reveals that taste and hunger are connected in ways that may be more complicated than we previously thought. Plus, there is more than one type of hunger. According to Scientific American, metabolic (homeostatic) hunger — i.e., when your stomach growls — is driven by physiological necessity. But hedonic hunger is a powerful desire for food, even if your body doesn’t actually need it.

This type of hunger is linked to the brain’s reward circuit. Similar to the way that drugs and gambling give us temporary “rewards” that lead to addiction, extremely sweet or fatty foods can trigger a response. According to Scientific American, eating these foods can make our taste buds send signals to various regions of the brain, which releases dopamine. If this happens too often, it desensitizes the system, so overeaters end up needing even more sugar or fat to reach the previous dopamine release, leaving them always wanting more food.

Consequences of Taste and Hunger

Studies that link taste to hunger and satiety could help people better understand which types of food could trick us into better nutrition. Further studies on the science of taste could nail down the details and help us understand how certain flavors of food trigger hormone responses so that we can make healthy choices.

Sometimes, our bodies need more intervention than simple nutritional advice. Patients who have obesity, for example, may need medication or surgery to treat the disease. Scientific studies can lead to drug development, such as a medicine that could mimic bariatric surgery, according to Scientific American. Further studies could help to explain how taste buds work, especially in the gut.

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