See Inside June/July 2006

Bitter Could Be Better

New additives might fool the brain into thinking that bitter foods and medicines do not really taste that bad
bitter medicine


Ashley grimaces. She really wants to spit out the vegetables she has just put in her mouth--they are horribly bitter. But politeness forbids. After all, the man from Cameroon and his wife have invited her to their home for dinner. And strangely, her hosts seem to be savoring the spinachlike ndole, a favorite from their homeland, which can be found in some specialty stores under the name bitterleaf.

Thats certainly the right name, Ashley has just discovered. But how can the experience be so different for her? Because the way individuals perceive flavors is determined not only by cultural familiarity but by molecular biology as well. Researchers are finding that genes activate very different sensitivities in each persons set of taste buds. Ultimately these reactions are responsible for the tastes we perceive in our brains, especially bitterness. As scientists learn more, executives at food manufacturing companies are experimenting with special compounds that could cover up unpleasant flavors that turn some people off healthful foods. And pharmaceutical manufacturers are testing such bitter blockers to make a range of medicines more palatable.

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