The Scientific Reason Why Some People Think Artificial Sweeteners Taste Bitter

Why do artificial sweeteners taste bitter to some people and sweet to others? Science has the answer.

Certain food debates will go on for eternity. Should pizza be dipped in ranch? Is the hot dog a sandwich? And does cilantro really taste like soap?

At least in the case of cilantro, there’s a scientific reason to explain our strong opinions. Our genetic differences can translate into different taste experiences with this controversial herb.

We now know the same goes for artificial sweeteners. Why do artificial sweeteners taste bitter to some and sweet to others? A recent study found that researchers can predict whether we’ll find certain sweeteners sweet or bitter based on our genes.

Why Do Artificial Sweeteners Taste Bitter?

If you’ve ever taken a sip of coffee with Splenda or other artificial sweeteners and nearly spit it out, your genetic makeup is to blame. While many of us find artificial sweeteners to taste very sweet, there are others who can’t stand them.

A new study from Penn State has some answers. Researchers there set out to determine why the no-calorie sweetener Acesulfame-K (Ace-K) can taste bitter to some and not others. The team looked at the taste receptor genes among the study participants.

How do taste receptors work? Essentially, they act like locks, and when a food molecule fits in place like a key, the receptor sends a signal to your brain. So when you take a bite of a cupcake, those molecules fit into your sweet receptor and send a message to your brain that this cupcake is delicious, and we should probably have more.

Sugar always fits our sweet receptors but artificial sweeteners are a little trickier. The sweetener Ace-K, commonly found in diet sodas, binds to the sweet receptor in some people and both the sweet and bitter receptors in others. This explains why you may love no-calorie sweeteners in your coffee while your spouse can’t stand them.

Which Sweetener Should You Use?

When artificial sweeteners first became popular, they seemed like the perfect alternative to sugar. All the sweetness without the calories—a chance to literally have your cake and eat it, too! But it turns out that the more we learn about no-calorie sweeteners, the less there is to love. Studies show that the sweetener aspartame can lead to more weight gain over time, as well as other side effects.

If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to sugar, look for low-sugar recipes or dishes that use natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup.

Healthier Treats Without Artificial Sweeteners

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Carrie Madormo, RN
Now a freelance health and food writer, Carrie worked as a nurse for over a decade. When she isn't hunched over her laptop with a baby in hand, you will find her cooking her grandmother’s recipes, lacing up her running shoes or sipping coffee in the bathroom to hide from her three young children.