Study: Why Fake Sweeteners Taste Disgusting to Some People But Not Others

I’ve never understood how my husband doesn’t like cilantro. “It’s so lemony and bright and fresh and DELICIOUS!” I’ll trill, as a take a big ol’ bite of a spicy chicken taco watching him watch me in utter disgust. “It tastes like soap,” he says. And then I tell him he’s crazy, even though I secretly know it’s not all in his head, but a matter of his genes, which dictate who likes cilantro and who doesn’t.

Genetic predisposition to either love or hate a certain taste is apparently the case, too, with artificial sweeteners, according to a new study out of Penn State. Using the no-calorie sweetener Acesulfame-K, or Ace-K, which is commonly found in diet sodas, low-cal baked goods and other products (look for it on the ingredient list, if you’re curious), researchers have learned that, as with cilantro, our genes play a role in whether we perceive the taste as either sweet or both sweet and bitter. The culprit are variations in two taste receptor genes, which send signals to the brain.

Listen to this:

These two taste receptor genes work independently, but they can combine to form a range of responses … Humans have 25 bitter-taste receptors and one sweet receptor that act like locks on gates. When molecules fit certain receptors like keys, a signal is sent to the brain, which interprets these signals as tastes—some pleasant and some not so pleasant.

So for some, the Ace-K molecules fit the bitter gates; for others, the sweet gate.

Interestingly, the same research team ran another study using Stevia, a different no-calorie artificial sweetener, and found that while subjects reported a range of perceived tastes here, too, their perception of how it tasted was not necessarily related to how they perceived Ace-K. In other words, just because they thought Ace-K was bitter didn’t automatically mean they though Stevia was, and vice versa.

Said study author John Hayes in a press release: “We’ve known for over 80 years that some people differ in their ability to taste bitterness, but we have only begin to tease apart the molecular basis of these differences in the last decade.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.