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New study reveals taste is connected to ethnicity and gender

Wednesday, 08 April 2020

A new study has shown that people of Asian ethnicity experience taste more intensely, and contrary to popular belief it’s men who have the sweetest tooth.

The research carried out at the University of Nottingham’s Sensory Science Centre is the first to explore the association between ethnicity (Caucasian vs Asian) and different observed variations in taste perception, known as taste phenotypes.

The Sensory Science Centre has done extensive research looking into the impact of taste phenotypes on perceived taste intensity, including PROP taster status, Thermal Taster Status and Sweet Liking Status.

A supertaster is someone who have the ability to perceive a bitter taste from a compound called ‘6-n-propylthiouracil’ (known as PROP),  which is linked to our genetic profile. A thermal taster is someone who can perceive a taste sensation when their tongue is heated or cooled, when no taste stimulus is actually present. A high sweet liker is someone who prefers super sweet foods.  

The results published in Food Quality and Preference show that people of Asian ethnicity are not only more likely to be ‘supertasters’, they are also more likely to be thermal tasters and low sweet likers. Interestingly, this study also found that men are more likely to be high sweet likers, who prefer sweeter foods.

Qian Yang, Lecturer in Food Science at the University of Nottingham led the study and said: “There is a lack of research comparing Asian and Caucasian populations, so these findings are significant as this is the first study to investigate the association between ethnicity and these taste phenotypes and how that affects perceived taste intensity.

Perceived intensity of taste and other oral sensations has been shown to vary greatly among individuals and may be one of the most important determinants of food preference and consumption affecting nutritional and health status. The findings from our study could help inform new product development to appeal directly to people’s taste buds.”

Tickling the taste buds

The human tongue is wrapped in taste buds (papillae). The small, mushroom-shaped bumps are fungiform papillae located on the anterior tip of tongue, contain taste receptors that bind to the molecules from your food and your brain can identify what you’re eating.

Taste perception occurs when certain compounds released from food dissolve in saliva and interact with taste receptor cells within taste buds. Most mammals are able to detect five different types of taste: sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami, whilst some other sensations have also been identified as potential tastes including fatty acid, metallic, kokumi and calcium.

For this study 223 volunteers were invited to determine their taste phenotypes, as well as their ethnicity and gender, and understand how these factors played a part in their experience of taste. Their perceived taste intensity were measured by asking participants to indicate how intense are the taste solutions.

Asians were found to be more sensitive to sour and metallic taste than Caucasians. This is an interesting finding, as it indicates that how consumers perceive taste intensity from food and beverages can be different across different ethnic groups.

Finding new products to bring to the market requires a great deal of insight and investment. With current competitive global food market, by understanding there are differences in how they perceive taste in different ethnic groups could help food manufacturers to develop new products or tailor product design to meet different consumer’s needs more effectively.
Qian Yang, Assistant Professor in Sensory and Consumer Sciences
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The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. Ranked 103rd out of more than 1,000 institutions globally and 18th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings 2022, the University’s state-of-the-art facilities and inclusive and disability sport provision is reflected in its crowning as The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 Sports University of the Year. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally. Alongside Nottingham Trent University, we lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, a pioneering collaboration which brings together the combined strength and civic missions of Nottingham’s two world-class universities and is working with local communities and partners to aid recovery and renewal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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