Cancer remains a major menace, killing millions of people every year. However, researchers have not been sitting idle. Significant progress has been made in understanding the risk factors that contribute to the development of cancer. One of the more striking findings is that “supertasters” – those with an acute sensitivity to bitter foods – may be at a far greater risk of developing cancer.
This eye-opening finding comes from a study published in the European Journal of Nutrition.
Many foods that reduce the risk of cancer are bitter tasting so researchers hypothesised that greater sensitivity to bitter foods could result in avoidance of key foods that reduce the risk of cancer.
This in turn could indirectly raise a person’s risk of cancer by encouraging them to shun protective components.
To test their hypothesis, scientists at Pennsylvania State University in the US and the University of Leeds enrolled a subset of women from the UK Women’s Cohort Study, a large, ongoing study funded by the World Cancer Research Fund which focuses on identifying links between diet and cancer among more than 35,000 women between the ages of 35 and 69 living in the United Kingdom.
The subset comprised more than 3,300 women.
Responsiveness to bitter tastes varies between people and falls on a spectrum, said lead author on the study, Joshua Lambert, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University.
Some people, called “non-tasters,” have little or no sensitivity to bitterness, while others, called “supertasters,” have strong aversions to it.
In between lies the person with a more moderate response, the “taster”.
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The researchers assessed the women’s ability to taste phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC, a chemical often used to study bitter taste sensitivity.
Some bitter-tasting chemicals in food, such as the isothiocyanates in cruciferous vegetables, are structurally similar to PTC.
Since taste perception is also influenced by genetic factors, a smaller subset of about 750 women underwent testing to determine if they carried SNPs that determined their preferences.
These variations in sensitivity often influence our dietary choices and are due to a wide array of influences, including genetic variants called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced “snips”); cultural and geographic dietary patterns and age, since we tend to lose bitter taste sensitivity as we get older.
The researchers also gathered data about the women’s biological and lifestyle factors that influence their cancer risk, such as age, body mass index (based on height and weight), dietary patterns (such as vegetarianism), and whether the women smoked or were pre- or post-menopausal.
Each woman completed a food-frequency questionnaire, or FFQ, to report how much and how often they ate certain foods over a specified period.
The researchers gathered information about the women’s consumption of fruit (including dried), vegetables (excluding potatoes), red meat, and total meat (including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and others).
The vegetables chosen for inclusion in the FFQ have high quantities of bitter-tasting phytochemicals (such as isothiocyanates) or links to reduced cancer risk.
Information about cancer diagnoses among the women came from the UK’s National Health Service Central Register.
The study’s findings indicated that tasters had a 30 percent greater risk of developing cancer compared to non-tasters but, overall, supertasters did not have a lower risk of developing cancer.
However, that risk changed as women aged.
Among women older than 60 years, tasters and supertasters had a greater risk (40 percent and 58 percent, respectively), compared to non-tasters.
It is hard to draw direct causal connections because other factors could be at play too, noted the researchers.
“People who have greater sensitivity to bitterness might not eat bitter vegetables, but they also might avoid alcohol,” suggests Professor Lambert.
Alcohol is linked to several types of cancer.
General cancer symptoms include:
- Unexplained pain or ache
- Very heavy night sweats
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unusual lump or swelling anywhere.
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