A study suggests that the receptors on our tongue that allow us to feel bitter flavors to a greater or lesser extent depending on the individual are also linked to vulnerability to respiratory infections such as COVID-19. Super-tasters", individuals who are overly sensitive to certain bitter compounds, are less likely to test positive for the virus.

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What if a person's distaste for bitterness says a lot about their body's ability to resist a COVID-19 infection? A strange link, yet one that was highlighted in a recent study conducted by researchers at Baton Rouge General Medical Center in Louisiana. Their work, published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open and reported by National Geographic, suggests that people who cannot tolerate bitter taste, found in broccoli, celery, kale and other foods, may be "super tasters" - people who are highly sensitive to bitterness - and that there is a correlation with the severity of their COVID-19 infection.

These people would not only be less likely to contract COVID-19 than people who don't dislike bitter flavors, but also less likely to end up hospitalized because of the infection. In addition, the "super tasters" in this study only experienced COVID-19 symptoms for about 5 days, compared to an average of 23 days for the other participants. The researchers do not understand exactly why or how taste affects the risk of COVID-19, but they have established a theory. Namely, that bitter taste receptors, one of which, called "T2R38," are found in the taste buds of the tongue.

Taste tests to come?

"When T2R38 is stimulated, it responds by producing nitric oxide to help kill or prevent further replication of viruses in the respiratory mucosa, which is an entry point for viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19. "These results have important implications," says Dr. Henry Barham, who led the study. "These findings have important implications, such as allowing people to make more informed choices and potentially prioritize vaccine administration. "The study involved nearly 2,000 people (average age 46), whose taste ability was tested using paper strips, and divided into three groups: nontasters, supertasters and tasters.

Non-tasters are people who cannot detect certain bitter flavors at all, while "super-tasters" are extremely sensitive to bitterness and can detect extremely low levels. Tasters fall somewhere in between. In the study, 266 participants tested positive for COVID-19 and it turns out that non-tasters were much more likely to be infected and more likely to have severe COVID-19. Conversely, those who experienced a higher intensity of bitter tastes (super-tasters) accounted for 5.6% of infected patients, suggesting enhanced innate immune protection.

The researchers therefore hypothesize that the more a person has a specific type of bitter taste receptor, the more likely they are to better fight off a virus. They also speculate that this link may explain why children suffer less severe symptoms when infected: the number of taste receptors decreases with age. More research is needed to confirm these findings, but they suggest that a taste test could provide a quick and inexpensive way to categorize people at risk for COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. But whether or not this is the case, the scientific team recommends caution in following barrier actions.