You’ve heard about gut instinct and gut feelings, but what about gut tasting…

When we like the taste of a food, we’re more willing to eat it, and when we don’t like the taste, we avoid eating it. This seems obvious, but it’s an important detail, as our taste reactions might protect us from eating something that’s bad for us. Although we associate taste with something that happens only along our tongues, there are actually taste receptors located throughout the intestinal tract.

Just after the turn of the last century, scientists discovered the genome for taste receptors, making it easier to locate them in various areas of the body.1 Similar to those on our tongues, taste receptors in the gut have an adverse reaction in response to food they don’t like, which can lead to nausea and other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms.

Researchers are optimistic that new discoveries about these mysterious taste receptor cells will lead to better treatments for a number of conditions, such as type II diabetes, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis), and some functional GI conditions affecting children.


The Gatekeeper

Within the GI tract, taste receptors play an important role in nutrient absorption, gut motility, and the secretory activity of GI glands during digestion. They work by detecting the chemical compounds contained in foods we consume and react by triggering a sequence of events that might lead either to digestion of nutrients or protective behaviour (e.g., nausea and/or vomiting) against potentially dangerous chemicals.


Green Eggs and Ham

You may have heard children complain about particular foods, not because they don’t like the taste necessarily, but because they say the food upsets their stomachs. Sometimes a particular food, though it is not harmful, will cause a child to vomit or experience other tummy upsets. When physicians investigate such complaints, they often find no organic cause and primarily treat these young patients with dietary modifications. After several decades of research, scientists have classified these GI symptoms as functional, acknowledging that they are real, but admitting that they don’t yet have a physical explanation for them.

We know that taste sensitivities are different for children, and that our taste receptors change and develop as we grow. Researchers believe there is a complex system of factors that likely contribute to functional GI complaints in children and have suggested that taste receptors may have an important role to play in improving treatment.


The Future

Other researchers are examining how different taste sensitivities among patients with irritable bowel syndrome might be affecting that disorder, and why an elemental diet can often induce remission in patients newly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. If taste receptors in the gut are an important trigger for the digestive process, as the latest research suggests, then over- or under-sensitive receptors could have a direct effect on several medical conditions. Eventually, drug developers may be able to target these receptors to treat issues related to activity that happens later during the digestive process or affects different organs, but which is first set in motion by the gut’s taste receptors.


What We Know Today

Taste is one of the five basic senses. Aristotle postulated in 350 BCE that the two most basic tastes were sweet and bitter and, for centuries, there were four basic recognized tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. In 1985, 77 years after its proposal as a distinct savory taste, the term umami received official recognition as the scientific term to describe the taste of glutamates and nucleotides.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 182 – 2012
1. Negri R et al. From the Tongue to the Gut. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition. 2011;53:601-5.