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A new study finds that taste sensitivity can be linked to obesity issues.

German researchers found that obese children have less sensitive taste buds than children of normal weight, which can lead to overeating.

The study examined the taste sensitivity of 200 children between the ages of 6 and 18. Over half of the children recruited were classified as obese. During the study, researches applied taste strips to each subject’s tongue to assess how they reacted to five taste sensations—sour, sweet, bitter, tangy, and savory. They also measured the intensity of each sensation.

Study results showed that obese children had a harder time deciphering salty, bitter, and savory tastes than their normal weight peers. They also had difficulty distinguishing between what was salty and sour as well as what was bitter or savory.

Out of all participants, girls and older children appeared to have the most well adept taste buds.

When it came to having a sweet tooth, both normal weight and obese children had no trouble identifying the varying levels of sweetness. However, obese children were three out of four times more likely to experience the intensity lower than their normal weight peers.

Although scientists cannot directly blame taste sensitivity for excessive weight gain or overeating, they do believe they hold a strong influence.

“It could be a cause and an effect at the same time,” said Robin Dando, a professor in the food and science department at Cornell University. “Obese people may taste differently, but also their taste ability is contributing to their obesity.”

Dando conducted his own research on the physiological effects of taste sensitivity. He found that age, sex, and experience typically shape taste sensitivities and preferences in addition to hormonal fluctuations.

Dr. Stephen Cook, an associate professor at the Golisano Children’s Hospital finds that the taste buds of obese kids are conditioned through repetitive taste choices.

“They may get so used to certain flavors, they need to consume them at an ever-increasing threshold to notice their taste,” Cook said.  

Previous studies have noted that people with heightened taste buds tend to eat less because they can get more flavor out of one bite in comparison to people whose taste sensitivities aren’t as keen.

A 2010 Australian study found that people who had highly sensitive taste sensations to fatty foods tended to eat less of it. The study’s author, Russell Keats believes this new German study has some flaws.

“The number [of subjects] is small, taste strips are not a great method to indicate taste function, and identification of taste may be related to other cognitive issues rather than anything to do with taste function,” Keats noted.

Cook said he’s interested in seeing how the study results could change if the participants were American children, who typically eat more processed foods.

“Since they have different exposures, I’m not sure the results would be the same,” Cook said.