Life wouldn’t be as sweet without the bitter. It’s an adage for life, one that really seems to have been taken to heart by coffee drinker of the world who are pushing this fanciful turn of phrase to its logical conclusion: life’s potential for sweetness can only be increased by the addition of more bitter. Lots of it. A new study shows that those more sensitive to bitter tastes consume more coffee than those who aren’t.
As reported by NPR, researchers looked through collected data from the UK Biobank, a genetic repository where “more than 500,000 people have contributed blood, urine and saliva samples” as well as “filled out questionnaires asking a variety of health-related questions, including how much coffee they drink.”
For their analysis, researchers pored over the half million participants to find those who were more or less sensitive to one or more of three bitter compounds: caffeine, quinine, and propylthiouracil, a substance generally used in “genetic tests of people’s ability to taste bitter compounds.” When cross-referencing the participants with their self-reported coffee intake, the researchers found that people more sensitive to caffeine—meaning those who are more genetically adept at picking up on its bitter taste—consumed more coffee than those less sensitive to it, by two tablespoons on average. Interestingly enough, those sensitive to quinine or propylthiouracil—neither of which are in coffee—consumed less.
To explain the ostensibly counterintuitive findings, Marilyn Cornelis, an assistant professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors, postulates that it isn’t the taste that keeps people coming back but what they associate with it, namely the energy jolt. Folks may “learn to associate that bitter taste with the stimulation that coffee can provide,” as Cornelis states.
It just goes to show the alchemical calculus coffee drinkers perform on a daily, if not multiple times a day, basis: that if you are going to chase the dragon of sweet, sweet liquid mental acuity, you’re going to need equal parts bitter to catch it.
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