An Uneasy Appetite

People who are sensitive to bitter tastes seem to have a higher risk of cancer.

By Brenda Goodman, published on November 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Important clues to your health may be on your tongue. Research suggests that the 25 percent of the population who are most sensitive to a bitter chemical called PROP—so-called supertasters—may face a higher risk of some cancers, possibly because they don't like the taste of vitamin-packed veggies.

In a study of 200 veterans, Linda Bartoshuk, professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, found that sensitivity to bitter tastes was correlated to the number of cancerous colon polyps in the subjects.

But having sensitive taste buds may not be completely bad news. Supertasters are also overpowered by sweet and high-fat foods, decreasing their risk for obesity and probably heart disease too. One of Bartoshuk's studies found supertasters experience greater "oral burn" from alcohol. She hypothesized that they were less likely to become alcoholics as a result. Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, confirmed the theory, but only for men—for reasons that are unclear.

The aversion to alcohol may help explain another of Joiner's observations—that supertasters are less likely to have family histories of depression. "Alcohol avoidance may play a role in that," he says. "But we also think that supertasters have a greater ability to experience pleasure, and that may offer a protective effect against depression."