Do you remember being a child and hating it every time you had to swallow pills because they tasted so bitter? Well, you are not alone. In a survey conducted in the United States, over 90% of paediatricians reported that a drug’s taste and palatability were often what obstructed the completion of prescribed dosages and hence treatment.

It seems strange that pharmaceutical companies would manufacture and allow medicine to be bitter if they had a choice, given that it might hijack the patient’s ability to complete their dosages in the end.

So why is it still bitter?

Most bitter medicines are as such due to the fact that they are plant-based, and hence leave a bitter taste on the mouth when dissolved by saliva.

There are two reasons for this, the first that the specific part of the plant used is sour in nature; and the second, that we are simply just not used to the taste. Taste is shaped through familiarity and adaptation, and the feeling that a bitter pill seems to taste better the more you take it is more than just psychological.

Moreover, the human tongue has more bitter taste receptors than any other taste. There exist just three human sweet taste receptor genes, but a whopping 43 human bitter taste receptor genes. Now you know why a bitter taste always seems to linger more than any other.

According to Mennella, a researcher with the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadephia, bitter taste is a sensation that evolves to make you not want to ingest something. Medicine often tastes bitter, and because children are more sensitive to the bitterness as compared to adults, this creates problems in getting them to be compliant with eating their medicine.

So, although some medicines are known to have a sweet coating around them especially to ensure children take them when needed, the general impression of medicine is still that it is bitter, which begs the question:

Does it need to be?

To answer this question, we need to first ask ourselves the reason behind the presence of bitter taste receptors on our tongues. It is often thought that humans developed bitter taste receptors over the years as a form of evolutionary mechanism to warn ourselves against potentially toxic substances.

Similarly, the bitter taste of medicine functions as a preventive measure against overdosing and even addiction. While medicine in small dosages is not fundamentally harmful, in large doses they certainly pose a large danger to the human body.

This is of even more pertinent importance for children as they may lack the discretion of knowing the severity of overdosing.

For better or for worse, bitter medicine certainly does us more help than harm, even if it does make our taste buds cry out in agony. Just remember, a spoonful of sugar always helps the medicine go down. MIMS

Read more:
A new “taste” has been found that may explain our love affair with carbohydrates
A taste of your own medicine
Eating disorders likely alter taste buds

Sources:
https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2008/august/helping-the-medicine-go-down.html
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772669/