Tasting Cannabis: Everyone knows that food tastes better just after you’ve smoked a bowl, hit a joint, or ripped the rig – or at least you crave it more. But there is some evidence that cannabis increases only certain types of flavors. In your mouth, there are all kinds of different taste buds spanning around the tongue, and some are receptors for different types of flavors, such as sweet, salty, bitter, or sour.
The purpose of taste buds may have been to keep early humans from eating things that would kill us, such as poisonous berries; it seems to make a lot of sense. Interestingly, bitter-taste receptors have been found in places on the human body where we wouldn’t assume they would be – for instance, in the testes and sperm. Geneticist Bedrich Mosinger, a taste specialist, noted that “[t]he taste receptor is like a microphone, and the protein is the microphone cable…experiencing a taste is like hearing a sound through an amp…if you lose either the mic or the cable, it won’t work.” So our taste buds effectively magnify the taste we are experiencing, and cannabis magnifies it even more.
There is a strong connection between the sense of taste and our emotions – tasting certain foods can take us back in time to a warm summer day and a dripping mango ice cream cone, or transport us to the scene of our first date with a past lover. This is evident from associations in literature through the ages, and in common English phrases like “sour grapes,” “sweet nothings,” “bring home the bacon,” or “the apple of my eye.” The main types of tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory – called umami in Japanese, for the Japanese researcher Dr. Kikunae Ikeda who discovered this additional taste sensation in the early 1900s.
Flavor is not only created by the taste buds, but is actually a combination of the smell, texture, and heat or coolness of a food – the nose is an integral part of what we think of as taste; this is why a cold seems to dampen our appetite and ability to taste food at times. By the way, hot and spicy feelings are not actually a taste per se – they are merely pain signals sent by the touch and temperature receptors in the brain.
According to a 2009 study on endocannabinoids and their effects on mouse taste buds, endocannabinoids target the sweet and bitter taste buds in the mouth. So how does this work, exactly? There is a chemical called leptin in blood plasma which reduces food intake by acting on the hypothalamus, the region of our brains that regulates appetite and body weight, among other important functions. Leptin works by suppressing the sweet taste responses in wild-type mice. The researchers in the study found that certain endocannabinoids increased the sweet and bitter tastes of foods in the mice. In other words, by suppressing leptin, they made the tastes of sweet and bitter foods more intense.
Of course, cannabis supporters in the medical industry have long claimed that cannabis increases appetite, and it is often used to help cancer patients going through chemotherapy and severe nausea to eat when they wouldn’t otherwise feel inclined. The Food and Drug Administration authorized THC use for chemotherapy patients way back in 1986. Yoshida, et al.’s study conclusively found that sweet taste responses are enhanced by endocannabinoids, so if you find yourself reaching for that last delicious chocolate even after you’re full, the cannabis you recently smoked or consumed might be to blame.
This post was originally published on March 25, 2016, it was updated on October 3, 2017.