"The described association between hedonic response to sweet taste and mood altering effect and impaired control over eating sweets makes the sweet taste test (STT) a potential ma[r]ker of the risk of developing binge eating behavior and obesity," wrote lead author Alexey Kampov-Polevoy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The results could contribute to a deeper understanding of how people develop food and taste preferences and cravings. This may have important implications for the food industry, not just for food formulators and flavour scientists, but also with the growing epidemic of obesity.
Over 300m adults are obese worldwide, according to latest statistics from the WHO and the International Obesity Task Force. About one-quarter of the US adult population is said to be obese, with rates in Western Europe on the rise although not yet at similar levels.
It has previously been suggested that food taste preferences vary between the sexes.
And the new study, published in the August issue of the journal Eating Behaviors (Vol. 7, pp. 181-187), also reveals that women are more likely to report the mood altering affects and the loss of control when eating sweets than men.
The researchers recruited 163 volunteers (61 per cent women) and rated a series of sucrose solutions for sweetness and palatability, and completed a 12-item sweet taste questionnaire (STQ). The STQ was designed to rate an individual's sensitivity to mood alterations as well as their control over eating sweet foods.
Kampov-Polevoy reports that volunteers with the strongest preference for sweet tastes also reported the strongest mood altering effects when eating the sweet foods, and were also more likely to have a reduced control over eating sweets.
It was found that women generally had stronger mood changes and a greater impairment of control.
"The results of the present study support the hypothesis that hedonic response to sweet taste is associated with elevated sensitivity to mood altering effects of sweet foods and impaired control over eating sweets," said Kampov-Polevoy.
The mechanism that determines an individual's response to sweet taste is genetic, said the researchers, and could involve variations to the TAS2R38 gene, only recently discovered and linked to a sweet taste preference in children and students. However, this would not explain the mood changes observed in the current study, said Kampov-Polevoy.
The preferred mechanism of the North Carolina researchers appears to be an activation in a region of the brain called the opoid system.
"This system is believed to be involved in the regulation of ingestive behavior by modulation of the orosensory reward associated with palatability rather than modulation of energy needs," wrote the researchers.
This study is at odds with a recent study from Sweden that reported there were no differences in taste preferences between the genders (Physiology and Behavior, Vol. 88, pp. 61-66).
The two studies do seem to agree however that a preference for sweet tastes is associated with a lack of assertiveness (impaired control) as well as the psychological changes when eating.