Variation in oral sensation: implications for diet and health

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Abstract

Purpose of review

Important advances in our understanding of how taste, smell and somatosensation contribute to oral sensation are reviewed and the nutritional and health implications associated with variation in oral sensation are discussed.

Recent findings

Oral sensation is a central integration of taste (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami), retronasal olfaction (i.e. smelling through the mouth), and somatosensation (touch, temperature, pain) by the orbitofrontal cortex. There is normal variation in oral sensation across individuals, ranging from those living in a neon orosensory world to those living in a pastel world. Historically, study of this variation revolved around genetically mediated bitterness of phenylthiocarbamide or propylthiouracil, but now it encompasses additional phenotypes (e.g. fungiform papillae number, bitterness of quinine) and emerging receptor genotypes. Aging and exposure to pathogens interact with genetics to further influence oral sensation. Orosensory variation is associated with differences in preference for high-fat foods, sweets, vegetables, and alcoholic beverages. Emerging data suggest this variation influences intake of these foods/beverages and thus diet-related chronic diseases (cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, obesity).

Summary

Oral sensation varies with genetics and gene–environment interactions. As this variation explains some of the differences in what we like/dislike to eat, attempts to reduce disease risk through diet should consider food/beverage preference to promote health and food enjoyment.

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