Danish and Chinese tongues taste broccoli and chocolate differently

Two studies from the University of Copenhagen show that Danes aren’t quite as good as Chinese at discerning bitter tastes. The research suggests that this is related to anatomical differences upon the tongues of Danish and Chinese people.

For several years, researchers have known that women are generally better than men at tasting bitter flavours. Now, research from the University of Copenhagen suggests that ethnicity may also play a role in how sensitive a person is to the bitter taste found in for example broccoli, Brussels sprouts and dark chocolate. By letting test subjects taste the bitter substance PROP, two studies demonstrate that Danish and Chinese people experience this basic taste differently. The reason seems to be related to an anatomical difference upon the tongue surfaces of these two groups.

A taste of artificial intelligence
Using a new artificial intelligence method, researchers from UCPH FOOD, in collaboration with Chenhao Wang and Jon Sporring of UCPH’s Department of Computer Science, analysed the number of mushroom-shaped “fungiform” papillae on the tongues of 152 test subjects, of whom half were Danish and half Chinese.

Fungiform papillae, located at the tip of the tongue, are known to contain a large portion of our taste buds and play a central role in our food and taste experiences. To appreciate the significance of papillae in food preferences across cultures and ethnicities, it is important to learn more about their distribution, size and quantity.

The analysis demonstrated that the Chinese test subjects generally had more of these papillae than the Danish subjects, a result that the researchers believe explains why Chinese people are better at tasting bitter flavours.

However, Professor Bredie emphasizes that larger cohorts need to be examined before any definitive conclusions can be drawn about whether these apparent phenotypical differences between Danes and Chinese hold at the general population level.

Danes prefer foods that require a good chew
Professor Wender Bredie points out that genetics are only one of several factors that influence how we experience food. Another significant factor has to do with our preferences — including texture. Think, for example, of the difference between munching on crispy potato chips from a newly opened bag, compared to eating softened ones from a bag opened the day before. Here, many Danes would probably prefer the crispy ones over the soft ones, even if the taste is similar. According to the UCPH studies, there seems to be a difference between the Danish and Chinese test subjects on this point as well.

While the vast majority of Chinese subjects (77%) prefer foods that don’t require much chewing, the opposite holds true for the Danish subjects. Among the Danes, 73% prefer eating foods with a harder consistency that require biting and chewing – rye bread and carrots, for example.

Visit The University of Copenhagen website for full article


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