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Why Some People Drink Coffee Even Though They Don't Like the Taste

Genetics tell some people to stay away, but a new study shows that something keeps them coming back for more.
Why Some People Drink Coffee Even Though They Don't Like the Taste

Whether you take it black or pour in the cream and sugar, coffee is beloved by many, especially in the United States. In fact, a study commissioned by the National Coffee Association earlier this year of 3,000 participants found that 64 percent of Americans reported drinking a cup of joe the previous day, the largest share of people in six years.

So if more people are drinking coffee daily, then that must mean they love the taste, right? Technically, that's not true.

A recent study conducted by Northwestern Medicine and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Australia discovered just the opposite, actually. Those who had a greater sensitivity to the bitterness of coffee drank more of it than those who didn't find coffee as bitter. It seems counterintuitive, right?

Before we dive into the study though, here's a little background information on why coffee makes some people pucker, and yet, they still drink it.

What makes coffee taste bitter vs. what makes other foods taste bitter?

Caffeine. Caffeine is responsible for coffee's bitterness. There are two other bitter-tasting substances that people are often tested for called quinine and PROP, or 6-n-propylthiouracil.

Quinine is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree—which is primarily located in both South and Central America and among the Caribbean islands—and is used in tonic water. PROP mimics the compounds in cruciferous vegetables, which includes cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.

Who was in the study, and how did it work?

Scientists applied a technique known as Mendelian randomization, which measured genetic variation among more than 400,000 men and women from the U.K. in order to test how bitter taste influences the amount of coffee one drinks. Researchers compared each person's genetic variants with the participants' self-reported results from a survey that asked how frequently they consumed alcohol, coffee, and tea.

What were the results?

Those who have a heightened sensitivity to caffeine—aka those people who find the taste of coffee bitter—drink more of it because they associate it with its end result—stimulation from the caffeine. Who doesn't love that extra boost of energy to kick off the morning?

"People who have a heightened ability to taste coffee's bitterness—and particularly the distinct bitter flavor of caffeine—learn to associate 'good things with it,'" said Marilyn Cornelis, PhD, assistant professor of preventive medicine in the Division of Nutrition at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

Those with a sensitivity to caffeine preferred coffee over tea, while those who found the substance PROP bitter reported drinking less alcohol, especially red wine.

In conclusion, all coffee lovers may not necessarily be born to love the actual taste of coffee. (We all know someone who says they only drink coffee for the caffeine—this explains why!) It's the aftermath of drinking a mug's-worth that conditions this kind of taster to tolerate the drink's bitterness, because they associate it with the caffeine kick that comes with it.

Nest stop: Starbucks!

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Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the news editor of Eat This, Not That!, specializing in food and drink coverage, and breaking down the science behind the latest health studies and information. Read more
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