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It Is Certainly Not the Taste. Then, Why Do We Consume Alcohol?

Updated on June 8, 2019

Alcohol, in various forms, is consumed excessively throughout the world. Despite its odd, bitter taste, something not generally fancied by people, alcohol has found a special place amongst human taste buds. "You acquire its taste", is what everyone says. If you can, try remembering the first time you tried an alcoholic drink. Chances are it might have come across as a harsh, vomit-inducing medicine. Why then, in spite of the distasteful flavour, most of us continued sipping it to the point that it became a soothing stress buster and a great socialising beverage?

As well informed citizens, we know the dark side of alcohol, and hence due to health reasons, some of us decide never to consume liquor. Few others, part of a culture where drinking is considered a sin, also choose to abstain. A further few, due to other reasons or no significant reason at all, prefer not to drink. The rest indulge in at least trying. Let's see how that goes.

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Why we might have an inherent repulsion towards alcohol

Living in the modern world, we are no strangers to the importance of nutrition. However, despite numerous studies compelling us to finish our veggies, many, especially kids, tend not to do so. For most of us, more than anything else, it is the taste that drives us to gulp down something. Evolution has a great explanation for this practice.

Early humans, who roamed around forests in search of food, had no choice but to guess whether something was edible. Scientists believe the sense of taste evolved in humans to screen them from munching harmful things and helped them decide what to eat. Sweetness resounded a big yes from the stomach as it signified energy. Little children, who need a lot of energy, are gravitated towards sugary foods for this very reason. Bitterness, on the other hand, indicated the possibility of the presence of poison and steered humans towards other food options. Human taste buds, therefore, developed sensitivity towards bitterness and probably, that's why we still don't fancy some vegetables.

Stretching this idea to alcohol consumption, we can establish that perhaps we have an inbuilt aversion towards alcohol. Nevertheless, like vegetables, alcohol too has its benefits, and while they may not always align with our health, they are good enough to force down a couple of shots.

Taste buds and genetic influence on alcohol affinity


You must have seen people gobble up radish and wondered why the hell do they like it. Have you ever given it a thought why what you hate is mouthwatering to someone else? No, it's not just down to food preferences.
Two people, if given the same thing to eat, are likely to encounter different flavours. Taste buds command this scheme.

Papillae, tiny bumps on the tongue, contain taste buds which have different receptor cells. These receptors consist of ion channels or proteins which are activated by different chemicals contained in food. While all humans have taste buds, their number varies. Supertasters, people who have excessive taste buds, taste things more intensely than others and are therefore less likely to enjoy alcohol.


An article published on Reuters in 2014 suggested that genes may program people to dislike alcohol. Humans have around 25 different bitter-taste receptor genes. Two of them, TAS2R13 and RAS2R38, were studied by professor John E. Hayes of Pennsylvania State University. Results showed that people who possessed any of these genes found alcohol to be 25 per cent more intense than average.

Glueing the facts about human evolution and biology, it is quite discernible why most people find their first sip of liquor disgusting. Supertasters those who carry any of the two bitter taste genes and many others who hate bitterness may never take a second sip but, for the forthcoming reasons, alcohol grows on a large population.


Why we ultimately end up drinking?

As teenagers, we saw adults enjoy alcohol. Bars in movies and TV-shows, where people converse over beers, seemed a great place to go. It all appeared cool. At last, somehow, we managed to have our first sip, and most of us ended up shattering all our conjectures. "What's so appealing about this", is what we felt. How then, beer became one of the most globally loved beverage?

It's an undeniable fact that humans seek social acceptance, but some, teenagers particularly, are a lot concerned about what people think of them. Liquor may not impress their taste buds. Nevertheless, society's voguish portrayal of the drinking culture and the fear of being left out when their peers pop up a bottle steamroll them to drink. At times, even stubborn people, on consistent public insistence, agree to a glass of wine. Soon, they label themselves social drinkers. This inconsistent practice, however, can turn into a habit. To understand this, we need to know how alcohol plays with the brain. An article published by Reuters illustrated it very well.


Chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, transmit signals throughout the body. They coordinate with the brain and control our emotions, behaviour and thoughts. Upon entering the bloodstream, alcohol disturbs the level of a couple of these chemicals.


Our brain helps us make everyday decisions, but sometimes its interference becomes displeasing specifically for introverts. It constantly warns us about the repercussions of our actions, making it hard for us to do things we otherwise would. Expressing emotions and confessing, asking a girl for her number, bring up a lot of "what ifs". A lot of people turn to alcohol to seek the emancipation they desire.
Glutamate is involved with brain activity. Drinking sedates the processing of brain by subduing its release causing low inhibitions, which we ultimately enjoy.


Chilling on the beach with a couple of beers is a great way to unwind. Liquor, to a certain quantity, is bound to make you feel relaxed. It does so by increasing the production of Gaba, which reduces energy. Trouble in walking, stumbling, drowsiness, are all down to this.


The most dominant factor that pulls people towards drinking is its effect on dopamine. Nobody likes alcohol; those who drink, do it for dopamine. Pleasure, euphoria, increased enthusiasm are a result of its discharge in the brain's reward centre. A vibrant mood after sweating at the gym, or elation after kissing your partner are all caused by the release of dopamine. Alcohol also triggers its production and cons us into believing that we are feeling great. An appetite for high dopamine level can boost right from the first time one drinks, and slowly people get obsessed with it. Perhaps, after all, it's not taste that we acquire but a craving for a dopamine rush.

Excessive drinking has shown to plunge the effect of dopamine. However, by that stage, people often get hooked to it, end up feeling the urge to drink heavily in pursuit of the pleasure they once felt and eventually suffer from alcoholism.

© 2019 shashank kumar


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