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The Effect of Taste on Hypertension, Diabetes and Obesity

Updated on August 27, 2015

Taste buds are considered a small organ of the body and each little bud is made up of 50-150 "taste cells", also known as taste receptor cells.

Taste cells can detect five general classes of unique tastes:

  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Bitter
  • Unami

The first four are obvious but “unami” may not be obvious.

Unami is one of the more recently identified tastes and it essentially is the taste of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

MSG or glutamate is present in more than just your typical Chinese take-out. It is present in a variety of protein-rich foods, it is a by-product found in some processed foods, and is abundant in aged cheese.

So, what about further down the pipeline?

Is it possible that “taste” goes beyond just the mouth? And if so, does that affect how we eat? It turns out that the ability to taste goes beyond just the taste buds on the tongue. There are cells throughout the body that have been discovered that are devoted to taste.

What are taste receptor cells?

Sugar, salt and fat are all detected by our chemical senses. It's not just taste – the sense of feel and smell play a huge role too. Detection by our chemical senses provides a feedback mechanism to the body and it regulates our dietary intake!

Taste cells are cells that have little protein receptors sitting on their cell surface just waiting to grab chemical compounds from food that they can translate that into a signal for the rest of the body.

Think of it like this: a taste receptor is like a football receiver just sitting there ready to receive the football (chemical compound) and once he’s got it, he moves and passes it on to the quarterback who runs with it and carries out what he’s trained to do. The taste receptors accept the “ball” or chemical signal and pass it on so the body can run with it. The more those cells get the “ball” the bigger the outcome and the bigger the signal to the body is.

Taste Cells and Mosquitoes

What is it on our skin that makes us human and animals so tasty to mosquitoes? Increased interest and discovery on taste cells is prompting researchers to delve deeper in to trying to understand how taste cells and the sensing of taste control the behavior of mosquitoes.

"Tasting" goes beyond the tongue

As it turns out, scientists have recently discovered that taste doesn’t just stop at the mouth. It’s been found that the intestines and gut have nutrient-sensing cells and they have sweet/bitter sensing cells.

In 2007, it was discovered that sweet taste cells in the gut regulate sugar absorption from the intestines to the blood stream. Receptors on these cells sense the sugary compounds and grab on to them. That, in turn, causes a downstream cascade of events: hormonal changes occur that eventually increases the rate of absorption of sugar into the bloodstream.

So really, once some sugar is detected, the cells “rally the troops” so to speak and recruit the taste cells to increase the absorption of sugar from the gut.

The taste cells don’t just stop there. It turns out that they are also found in the pancreas.


Tasting and the link to hypertension, diabetes and obesity

It’s no big secret these days that problems such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity are directly tied to what we eat.

It may seem easy to become complacent, and simply just say “it’s in my genes” or “I can’t help it because I inherited it. Everyone in my family has had this disease, so I know I’ll get it too”.

However, it goes way beyond that. These diseases are not just inherited problems that we can’t control. We do have more control than we realize over the expression of our genes.There is growing evidence that even though we may be predispositioned to certain diseases based on the genes we inherit, often we do have control over their expression.

There is a whole new field of research called “nutrigenomics” that is clearly showing that how we choose to eat affects whether certain genes are turned on, off, up or down in our body.

In very simplistic terms, while you may be predisposition to diabetes, hypertension or obesity based on your genetic background, you can often control how those related genes are expressed based on how you choose to eat and your lifestyle. Conditioning your taste cells and ultimately your body to like (and eventually crave) healthy foods can go along way to reducing the risk of diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Taste preferences do change with the body. We as humans can often develop food aversions, particularly if we become ill after eating certain foods, even though that food was not the cause of the illness.

Conversely, we can also develop cravings for food if exposed to them on a very frequent basis. Food preferences and aversions involve the sense of taste, but this is ultimately mediated through the central nervous system and most likely results in a changes of the types of taste cells in our body.

Additional Reading and References

“Tasting Beyond The Tongue”, The Montell Connection, Summer 2009 Issue. Montell Chemical Senses Center is a non-profit organizations devoted to the concept of taste and smell.

Breslin and Huang. 2006. Human taste: peripheral anatomy, taste transduction, and coding. Adv. Otorhinolaryngol. Vol 63: 152-90.

Lalonde and Eglitis. 2005. Number and distribution of taste buds on the epiglottis, pharynx, larynx, soft palate and uvula in a human newborn. The Anatomical Record Vol. 140: 91-95.

Brantly, et al., 2005. Consumption of High Fat Foods Influences Taste Preferences. J. Of Nutrition in Recipe & Menu Development. Vol. 3: 9-17.


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 4 years ago from Indiana

      @Au fait - thanks for sharing this. I found this to be one of the most fascinating scientific discoveries in recent years. It's the definitive link between food and our brain and helps explain food cravings. You can bet that the food industry is going to try to use this to their advantage - which may not be a good thing...

      @Fiddleman - diet can make a world of difference with managing Type II. I have a client that was told she would be on the insulin for the rest of her life but after six years of diligently working on her diet and exercising regularly, she proved her doctors wrong. There is hope and it is manageable and the key for most is getting support and guidance to help work through the tough diet issues. Wishing you the best on getting your readings down!

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 4 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      A very interesting hub and as a recently diagnosed Type II diabetic caught my attention. I have a difficult time getting my daily readings down to normal levels and the reason is mainly diet.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      You have so many interesting titles it was hard to choose which one to read first! Very interesting hub. I really enjoy learning about these things.

      Voted up, interesting, useful, and will share with my followers!

    • cherylone profile image

      Cheryl Simonds 5 years ago from Connecticut

      Kris, thank you for that information. My family has diabetes on both sides (my sister is brittle-Type I) and I often crave sugar so bad that I can't seem to stop eating until I get the sugar that I craved. It has been a long hard road and I find myself falling a lot. But, I know I can't give up. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @chefsref - I can only imagine how competing with those fried foods can be challenging as a chef!

      When I work with clients on weight loss, this is one of the first hurdles - getting over the taste and craving for fried, fast and processed foods. It can take anywhere from 2-4 months but then once "off" that daily diet, the stomach lining physically changes. And then they are amazed at how much they start to crave fresh fruits and veggies. If they slip and have fast food it actually makes them feel sick to their stomach.

      I'm really glad to see Montell group and other researchers uncovering the science behind it!

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 5 years ago from Citra Florida

      Hey Kris

      Interesting subject for me, both as a chef and a diabetic. As a chef we always dealt with people's preference for "Mom's cooking" and Mom was a tough opponent. A few chefs were lucky enough to develop an adventurous clientele and experiment more creatively.

      Now, in many homes there is no time to cook so kids are growing up with a taste for absolute junk, prepackaged, frozen and loaded with salt and sugar. Instead of competing with "Mom" now chefs are competing with Wonder Bread, Twinkies and frozen dinners. In this light Fried Twinkies suddenly make sense.

      Learning to eat well is a bit of a challenge