From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published June 16, 2010 02:06 PM

Salt, Genes and Bitterness

Salt is a very common food ingredient and condiment. Many people enjoy the taste. Many doctors do not like because of the potential threat to health and heart attacks. Salt (good old Sodium Chloride) can mask bitter tastes and make food more palatable. Some people are more sensitive to bitter flavors and then tend to eat more salt and have a harder time eating less of it. As experts urge Americans to cut their intake by more than half to 2,300 milligrams (about a teaspoon) of sodium a day or less, insights like these might help identify the people who will may need some other way to mask bitter tastes.


Sodium is one of the primary electrolytes in the body. All four cationic electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium) are available in unrefined salt, as are other vital minerals needed for optimal bodily function. Too much or too little salt in the diet can lead to muscle cramps, dizziness, etc.

Higher salt intake has also been associated in some studies with higher rates of stroke, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure (hypertension).

Salt is everywhere and not just in the salt shaker. It is in many foods and food preparations.

Though humans tolerate wide variations in salt intake, most Americans consume sodium in this range: 1,150 – 5,750 mg/day. Americans average about 3,500 mg/day, The National Academy of Science recommends a sodium intake level at least 500 mg/day, but less than 2,300 mg/day.

Now comes some evidence that salt is needed by some people to mask bitter tastes.

"Not everyone lives in the same taste world," said John Hayes, a biophysiologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "With all of these efforts to reduce sodium, some people are going to have a much harder time with that."

About 25 percent of people experience flavors more vibrantly than everyone else, thanks to differences in the tiny bumps that house taste buds on our tongues. The gastronomic world is more extreme to these people. Fats taste creamier. Sugar tastes sweeter. Chilies taste spicier. Even green, leafy vegetables taste more bitter.

Hayes and colleagues expected that this type of people would also taste salt more intensely, and that in turn, they would need less of it to get the same salty satisfaction as someone with a more average palate. But when the researchers asked 87 healthy men and women to keep detailed food diaries for five days, they were surprised to find that some people with a strong sense of taste consumed the most sodium throughout the week.

In followup taste tests, the scientists also reported recently in the journal Physiology & Behavior that individuals with a strong sense of taste were more likely to notice the difference between varying sodium levels in a range of foods including soy sauce, potato chips and chicken broth. They were also generally more turned off by low sodium products.

Besides adding saltiness, sodium blocks bitterness and balances flavors and textures in everything from bread to yogurt drinks, which helps explain why more than 80 percent of the sodium we eat is in processed foods and restaurant meals. Even as manufacturers work to lower sodium levels in their products in response to public scrutiny, personal taste decisions due to salt sensitivity might end up affecting the way we eat.

What causes the differences in taste perception? It may be genetics or it may be based on environmental factors such as what one grew up with eating and liking.

So to change salt ingestion habits one has to consider the habits of people and what they like or dislike in terms of tastes. Changing habits and likes/dislikes is not an easy task. Also other ways to mask a bitter taste could be useful.

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