Coffee and cigarettes are a timeless, enigmatic combination. They may exude a special flavor of brooding, but whether smokers (or coffee drinkers, whichever label you prefer) actually are able to taste their bitter pick-me-ups is another story. A new study suggests cigarette smoking can kill your taste buds indefinitely.

Scientists have known for years that cigarettes, in addition to stinking up your clothes and yellowing your nails and teeth, actually dull your sense of taste. This is because the toxic chemicals in cigarettes interact with your tongue in such a way that the taste buds lose their shape and become flatter, through a process known as vascularization. They don’t disappear — smokers and non-smokers have the same number of taste buds — they just get worse at doing their job.

The present group of researchers, from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital APHP in France, wanted to see how former smokers would respond to taste tests. Led by French researcher Nelly Jacob, the team collected data on 451 staff from Parisian hospitals to recognize the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. They also asked subjects about the intensity of each taste.

Sweet, sour, and salty tastes remained unaffected among the smoking group when compared to those in the former-smoking and never-smoking groups. However, both current smokers and former smokers were significantly less adept at picking up bitter tastes — characteristically a potent taste, even in small concentrations. While non-smokers only missed the taste 13.4 percent of the time, current smokers missed it nearly one out of every five times (19.8). Surprisingly, former smokers did the worst, at 26.5 percent.

Researchers take the findings as evidence to look at smoking’s role in taste perception more critically. It may also lead to further research in the ways toxic chemicals found in cigarettes interact with the brain’s sense of taste. When a person stops smoking, the body quickly restores many of its baseline functions. Twenty minutes after and a person’s blood pressure and pulse return to normal. In two days, the blunted senses of smell and taste begin to sharpen again. By the 15-year mark, the person’s risk for coronary heart disease equals that of a non-smoker.

“We consider that the perception of bitter taste should be examined more closely, both as a tool for smoking cessation or for preventing smoking initiation,” Jacob said in a news release. “More generally, it should be worthwhile to consider the role of chemosensory perceptions in smoking behavior.”

 

Source: Jacob N, Golmard JL, Berlin I. Differential Perception of Caffeine Bitter Taste Depending on Smoking Status. Chemosensory Perception. 2014.