Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sugar Cravings

Credit: Yurok Aleksandrovich

Credit: Yurok Aleksandrovich

By Daniel Hwang

We all differ in our sensitivity to natural and artificial sweeteners, but how much of this is genetic and how much due to the influences of our sugar-fuelled culture?

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While some people love the taste of Tim Tam biscuits, others find them too sweet. Our research suggests that our genes influence these individual differences in the perception of sweetness.

Taste has a significant impact on our life. It contributes to our enjoyment by stimulating a desire to eat, and therefore plays an essential role in our selection of food and nutrients. It also acts as a natural defence against food poisoning by alerting us to spoilt foods and potential toxic compounds.

We can perceive five basic taste qualities – sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami (savoury) – with sweetness generally considered pleasant by most people across all ages. Sweetness signals the presence of carbohydrates, the main energy source for the human body, and hence is essential for feeding, metabolism and early development.

However, not everyone has a normally functioning sense of taste. One in every ten Australian children is unable to taste food properly, and has difficulty distinguishing one taste quality from another. In the USA more than 200,000 people each year seek medical advice for taste or smell problems, which include changes in taste quality, intensity or hallucinations. The exact causes behind this are not fully understood, but may result from normal ageing, head injuries or a side-effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

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The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.