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Ask Sharon: Can Cutting Sugar Reduce Taste for It?

Sharon Palmer

As part of my new program “Ask Sharon”, I am answering the top question of the month submitted through my   blog, Facebook,  Twitter   or   Instagram   to answer here. You can even win a prize! Don’t forget to submit your burning nutrition question this month via my blog, or other social media. Here is my favorite question this month. 

Question: Can cutting your intake of sugar reduce your desire for it? Karen

Answer: As a registered dietitian with more than 25 years of experience, my gut tells me that yes, you can reduce your desire for sugar when you cut down it over time. You can train your taste buds to be more sensitive to the taste of sugar, so that an ever decreasing amount satisfies your taste buds. I have experienced this in my own life, as I consume very little refined sugars, and prefer to eat plain oats with no sugar (just seasonal, unsweetened fruit) for breakfast, and plain soy yogurt with no added sugar—just some sliced fruit for sweetness as a snack. I once ate the sweet, artificially colored yogurts, but I find them sickeningly sweet now. And to sip a full strength, sugary soda seems completely unpalatable to me now, it’s so disgustingly sweet to my palate. Even with all of this personal information and observations of clients over the years, the science is less clear on whether you can indeed train your taste buds to prefer less sugar.

We do know that sensory experiences can influence the acceptance of less palatable flavors, for both children and adults, through repeated exposure. Scientists call this the “mere exposure” effect. Experimental studies from the 1980s show that young children required 6-15 taste exposures before accepting a new food or flavor. And recent research shows that adults, too, require repeat exposures to new tastes before they accept them.

And a recent study investigated whether the perception of sweetness was altered during a low-sugar diet. In this study, researchers observed sugar intake and perceptions of sweetness in 29 subjects over 3 months. Half of them reduced their sugar by 40%, and the others continued their regular diets. The people who lowered their sugar intake consistently reported that the puddings and drinks with little sugar tasted sweeter than did the group who didn’t reduce their sugar intake. This indicated that the taste or tolerance for sugar had changed after eating less of it. You can read the study results here.

While we need much more research on this subject, I think that it is a good strategy for people to try reducing their sugar intake slowly so they can get more used to the taste of foods without added sugars. With so much information coming out on the importance of limiting added sugar intake to no more than 10% of calories (200 calories or 50 grams for the average person), strategies like this may be helpful.

Just think: Before the advent of modern food, our ancestors new of nothing sweeter than fruit or honey. Can you imagine how joyful they were when summer came upon them, and they could cherish the natural sweetness found in berries, melons, and peaches? Maybe the occasional dab of honey—which was achieved at a high cost of wrangling honey away from the bee hive—was a precious, sweet enjoyment. If you think of how far our food system has come since these days, with products lining shelves that are saturated in added sugars from an array of sources, it’s a reminder to get back to nature and to our roots. Try to get used to the flavor of foods without that sweetness. You may be surprised how delightful they really are!

Eat and Live Well,

Sharon

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