Is Calcium the Sixth Taste?

By Ana Mantica, January/February 2009

The bitter proof for why getting enough calcium can be difficult. Can science help?

Perhaps. It turns out our tongues may actually be able to detect calcium in foods, according to research presented at the annual National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia last August.

Taste buds have receptors for at least five known specific tastes—salty, sweet, bitter, sour and savory (or umami). Researchers pinpointed two of these taste receptors—sweet and umami—as being involved in tasting a sixth, calcium. What’s surprising is that calcium doesn’t taste sweet or savory. “It is bitter, sometimes sour,” says lead study author Michael Tordoff, Ph.D., a biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

But the usefulness of the findings goes beyond taste. Ultimately researchers are trying to help Americans meet recommended intakes for calcium. “We know from studies that animals with increased needs for calcium find the mineral more palatable,” explains Tordoff, “for example, pregnant and lactating mammals and birds laying eggs.” But humans tend to dislike the taste of calcium, which is found naturally in dairy products (the fat and protein in these foods bind to the calcium, which is why they’re not so bitter) and dark leafy greens, such as broccoli and spinach. So now that researchers have discovered what receptors are involved in tasting calcium, they’re looking for ways to block these receptors to make calcium-rich foods more palatable.

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