Strong Sensitivity to Bitter Tastes Linked to Higher Cancer Risk

New research suggests that a high sensitivity to bitter tastes may be a good predictor for risk of cancer in women. A recent study has begun to examine the link between sensitivity to better tastes and the risk of developing cancer.

The study was conducted by researchers at the College of Agricultural Sciences of Pennsylvania State University in State College together with a team from Leeds University in the United Kingdom.

Lead researcher Joshua Lambert and his team examined the data related to lifestyle and diet factors and health history of 5,500 British women over 20 years.

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The researchers examined how a woman’s ability to taste phenylthiocarbamide (PTC), which is a chemical that can be perceived as either extremely bitter or completely tasteless depending on a person’s sensitivity to bitter flavors, can influence cancer risk.

Lambert and his team also considered the impact of genetic variants encrypting the taste receptor TAS2R38, which binds to PTC, letting an individual to perceive its taste.

The findings, which are now published in the European Journal of Nutrition, suggest that there is a connection between an increased ability to taste bitterness and a woman’s risk of developing cancer.

Establishing Differences In Terms of Cancer Risk

The scientists collected most of their study data through the UK Women’s Cohort Study, which has been gathering information about potential links between chronic diseases especially cancer and the impact of dietary factors.

Specifically, Lambert and team started from the groundwork that women with a high sensitivity to bitter tastes would eat fewer vegetables and be exposed to higher cancer incidence.

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In evaluating the data, the scientists split the women into three groups, depending on their ability to respond to the bitterness of PTC: “super-tasters,” “tasters,” and “non-tasters.”

They found that “super-tasters” and “tasters” were at higher risk of cancer compared with women who could not taste the bitterness of PTC. However, they did not detect a significant link with the amount of vegetables consumed by the women in each group.

“The difference in cancer incidence between the women with the highest bitter-taste sensitivity and those with the lowest was striking,” says Lambert. “Super-tasters had about a 58 percent higher risk of cancer incidence,” he explains, “and the tasters had about a 40 percent higher risk of developing cancer, compared to women who were classified as non-tasters.”

While this confirmed part of the investigators’ working hypothesis, they were amazed to find that whether or not the women were sensitive to bitter flavors had nothing to do with their long-term dietary preferences.

Lambert says “We thought the increased risk of cancer in women with high bitter taste sensitivity would happen because over their lifetime they would have consumed fewer bitter-tasting vegetables, which have been reported to have cancer preventive activities.”

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However the “super-tasters” did not report eating any fewer vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts compared with the “non-tasters,” which baffled the researchers.

This drove Lambert and his team to apply for a grant to the American Institute for Cancer Research with the aim of conducting a new study, taking a closer look at the relationship between sensitivity to bitter flavors and women’s risk of, more specifically, colon cancer in the United States.

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