Smoking, family alcohol history alter taste buds

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Cigarette smoking and a family history of alcoholism both alter how women perceive sweet foods and what foods they crave, according to studies conducted by two researchers from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

A model smokes backstage before the start of the Jenni Kayne fall fashion show during New York Fashion Week February 7, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Marta Yanina Pepino and Julie A. Mennella found that women who smoked were less sensitive to sweet taste than women who never smoked. Women who smoked needed higher concentrations of sugar to detect a sweet taste, and the more years a woman smoked, the less she was able to perceive a sweet taste.

“Smoking dulls sweet taste sensitivity,” Pepino and Mennella noted in a joint email to Reuters Health. “Whether this reduced sensitivity for sweets helps smokers control their weight is an important question that is not addressed in the current study.”

The researchers also found that cigarette smoking leads to increased food cravings, particularly for starchy carbohydrates and high-fat foods. “We found that food cravings were associated with nicotine dependence ... the more intense the cravings for cigarettes, the more frequent the cravings for foods high in fat and carbohydrates,” Pepino explained.

The observations stem from tests performed with two groups of women: 27 current smokers (18 with a family history of alcoholism) and 22 never-smokers (9 with a family history of alcoholism. The researchers measured cravings for sweets and other specific foods and, for smokers, cravings for cigarettes.

The bottom line, Pepino and Mennella say, is that “smoking alters your sensory world. Our study adds to the growing evidence that sensitivity to odors as well as bitter and sweet tastes declines as a consequence of smoking.”

The researchers also found evidence that, regardless of smoking status, women with a family history of alcoholism showed a preference for sweeter foods and craved sweets more often than women without a family history of alcoholism.

Dependence on alcohol and nicotine, and the associations of these two drugs of abuse with a greater affinity and sensitivity to sweets may originate from a common neurobiological base of reward or genetic factors, the researchers say.

“More knowledge of how genetic factors interact with smoking and alcohol addictions on the perception of food-related cues may assist in designing programs to help women, a population especially concerned with weight gain, to stop smoking,” they conclude.

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, November 2007.