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Fat kids’ tasters less sensitive: Studies

Children and adolescents who are obese may have less-sensitive taste buds than do kids of normal weight, according to new research.

In a study conducted in Germany and published last week in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, simple taste tests were administered to 99 obese kids and 94 kids of normal weight.

Each of the young people, who ranged in age from 6 to 18, tasted 22 strips of paper that had been treated with varying concentrations of substances associated with the five known qualities of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory). Participants were asked to identify which of the five qualities the strip represented. A perfect score of 20 would indicate that the taster correctly identified each of the five qualities at four levels of intensity. (Two of the strips had no flavor.)

The obese young people had more trouble discerning tastes than the others did: The average score among the obese youngsters was 12.6, compared with 14 among the normal-weight kids. Individual scores ranged from 2 to 19. The obese kids had particular trouble identifying salty, umami and bitter tastes.

That lack of sensitivity might help govern kids’ food choices, the study suggests, perhaps steering them away from more-healthful foods that their palates perceive as less satisfying.

A second experiment asked participants to distinguish varying levels of sweetness on test strips. Obese and normal-weight kids all did a good job of ranking the levels of sweetness, but the obese kids tended to rate the levels of sweetness lower.

Different people experience taste in different ways, the study notes. Taste sensitivity is most likely determined by a combination of genetics, hormones, cultural influences and the extent to which a person is exposed to different taste sensations in early childhood.

A better understanding of this phenomenon might lead to new approaches to combating childhood obesity, the study concludes.