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Why You Would Ever Consider Putting Salt in Your Coffee

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Salt can make bad coffee more bearable.

Here’s some science-based rationale behind a recent Men’s Health advice on why you would ever consider putting salt in your coffee.

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It may seem like a weird idea, but adding salt to your coffee does make sense with your senses. And by that, I am referring to how the tongue perceives taste.

The Science of Taste

In a new study published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, researchers have added to the growing knowledge of what we know about the sense of taste with respect to how the act of tasting can result in different sensations dependent upon how we allow food or drink to move over the tongue.

As it turns out, the human tongue registers taste more quickly when food and beverages move over the tongue quickly, than it does when it is held in the mouth like a thoughtful analytical sip. The reason for this is due to the size of the flavor molecules and the dynamic structure of tongue tissue that impacts a large part of taste.

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According to a news release from Ohio State University news, Kai Zhao, an associate professor of otolaryngology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and the lead author of the study, likens the taste bud containing papillae as moving about on the surface of the tongue in an undulating fluid motion.

“Our tongue has papillae on it that act like a sea of kelp in an ocean…Those papillae—the small bumps that contain taste buds on the human tongue, move and sway as food or drink flow past them,” states Dr. Zhao.

Researchers in the study used computational modeling where the tongue is modeled as having a porous surface with hole-filled spongy papillae through which smaller sized flavor molecules can enter more easily than larger sized flavor molecules.

Using both sweet and salty flavor molecules, the computer simulation analyzed what would happen if the flavors were passed relatively quickly over the tongue in comparison to passing more slowly as one would do during a careful sip and savor of a food item or beverage.

What they found was that, “…passing flavors over the tongue quickly caused the flavors to penetrate into the papillae gaps quicker, and that would register flavor more quickly.”

In other words, this would be expected to affect how one perceives the taste of food and drink in real-world practice during eating, In particular, the sensation of sweetness occurring first due to sweet flavor molecules are smaller than the larger salty flavor molecules.

“Smaller molecules may diffuse quicker, and we think this could be the reason they move through the papillae gaps more quickly…That early response is changed depending on how the molecules of what we are consuming interact with the tongue’s surface,” Zhao said. “It is a complex process.”

So, what does this have to do with some Men’s Health advice on adding salt to your coffee? It has to do with individual taste perception with respect to coffee and what you may experience when drinking a variety of cups of brewed coffee beans and blends.

A Salt Hack for Bad Coffee

According to coffee expert James Hoffman in a YouTube video, you can hack the taste of bad coffee to make it more palatable by adding a slight amount of salt to it.

“One of the pleasures of coffee is that when it’s good, it has the right kind of bitterness, much like beer or chocolate,” Hoffmann says in the video. “Some bitterness is very pleasant when it’s balanced out properly by sweetness and some acidity. Overall, it’s a complex and enjoyable thing.”

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However, when your cup of coffee or one served to you comes off as bitter, you might want to try reaching for the salt shaker before resorting to adding cream and sugar to soften the blow to your taste buds.

Here’s the YouTube Video Demonstrating the Salt Taste Test

Using Nescafe Original instant coffee as his upper level of harshness in taste in coffee brewed under recommended conditions, Hoffman varies the amount of salt added to see just how much it takes to make the bitterness bearable and an improvement over how the instant coffee tastes without salt.

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“That’s pretty magical, actually,” says Hoffman of the difference salt can make toward decreasing the bitterness and improving the feel of the coffee over his tongue.

To be clear, the addition of salt does not improve the flavor of coffee; rather, it mitigates the bitterness into a more taste-manageable level.

Hoffman ends the video encouraging viewers to give salt a taste-test with bad coffee like he did in the video so that you can increase your perception and appreciation of coffee.

“Why not learn about how you taste, a little bit more about what you like, and how your sense of taste works,” points out Hoffman.

In fact, this is actually good advice. While not all of us may have the palates of a professional taste tester when cupping a new coffee bean roast or blend, learning how tasting is done and how that science can offer some explanation of how we experience what we sense can add a lot to our individual coffee pleasure. In addition, it can help you understand why what we perceive may differ from what others discover when drinking the same cup of coffee.

It’s much more than a matter of taste.

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between coffee and healthy living. For continual updates about the benefits of coffee on your health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Images courtesy of Pixabay

References:

What happens when food first touches your tongue” by Laura Arenschield, Ohio State News 09 July 2020.

Taste of time: A porous-medium model for human tongue surface with implications for early taste perception” Wu Z. and Zhao K.; PLoS Comput. Biol. 16(6): e1007888. 04 June, 2020.

The Weird Science Behind Adding Salt to Your Coffee” by Katie Dupere, Men’s Health 29 July 2020.

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