When do taste preferences develop? Amazingly, we first discover flavours in the womb! Young infants are born with a fondness for sweet and savoury, which is believed to be an important survival skill, pointing them to the energy- and protein-rich foods they need. In contrast, bitter and sour tastes sound a warning signal that a food may be poisonous or toxic. While our biology provides a similar starting point, personal taste preferences change over time and are influenced by exposure to new foods, social norms and food availability.

While your friend who is carrying a cute “caffeine, then the world” mug may not have enjoyed that first sip of black coffee, she now welcomes the experience. These changes are welcomed as a rite of passage. However, many people bemoan their lingering sweet tooth. In light of the increasing emphasis on the perils of too much sugar, it is no wonder that people want to cut back. But, can you retrain your taste buds? And should you make going sugar-free your goal?


Can you retrain your taste buds?

Researchers suggest that repeated exposure can make disliked foods less disliked (although not necessarily enjoyed). Sometimes this can even result in developing an acquired taste, like our coffee example.

recent study asked: Can people become used to lower amounts of sugar in their diet? The answer? Maybe. But, we need more research to see if the effects will last long term. Here’s what happened. The five-month study was small, with 29 adults who reported drinking at least two sugar-sweetened beverages per day. They were asked to rate the sweetness of vanilla pudding and a raspberry beverage with different amounts of sugar. 

Month 1

  • Baseline measures were taken.

Month 2

  • Researchers randomly split the people into two groups:

o     A control group who was told not to change their sugar intake

o     A low-sugar group who was told to replace 40% of calories from simple sugars with fat, protein or complex carbohydrates and to avoid non-nutritive sweeteners

  • There were no significant differences in sweetness ratings between the two groups

Month 3

  • The low-sugar group rated lightly sweetened pudding samples as more intense vs. the control group.

 Month 4

  • The low-sugar group rated a wide range of pudding samples as 40% more intense vs. the control group.

Month 5

  • Both groups were told to choose any diet they wished.
  • The low-sugar group increased their sugar intake almost back to the original intake.
  • There were no significant differences in sweetness ratings between groups.

Overall, people who lowered their sugar intake reported that the puddings and drinks with only a little sugar tasted sweeter than the group that did not change their sugar intake. The effect was stronger for solid foods like puddings than for drinks. This suggests that taste preferences changed due to eating less sugar. However, these results disappeared when people went back to their old habits. 

Do you need to go sugar-free?

In a word, no. Here’s why:

  • The concept is confusing. “Sugar-free” means different things to different people, from cutting out all sources of sugar including foods with naturally-occurring sugar such as fruit, to allowing for natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, to reaching for artificial sweeteners such as sucralose.
  • Public health authorities recommend reducing added sugar to 10% of total calories per day. These foods provide calories but no other nutritional benefits. In contrast, foods with naturally-occurring sugar, such as fruit and milk products, are nutrient-rich and can continue to be enjoyed as part of a healthful diet.
  • Hypervigilance about food, such as obsessing over grams and teaspoons of sugar, can hurt your relationship with food. Healthy eating is more than just the foods you put on your plate; it includes what and how much you think about food and eating.
  • You might miss the forest for the trees. Remember, food is a sum of all its parts. Consider the benefits of the whole food and think about your food choices over the whole day, with less focus on single nutrients, to promote a balanced and enjoyable diet.

How to tame your sweet tooth

If retraining your taste buds and reducing your added sugar intake is an experiment you want to try, I would recommend starting with these three steps.

 1.     Begin with a solid foundation. Are you eating regular meals throughout the day, choosing a variety of whole and minimally-processed foods and using your hunger and fullness cues to guide your eating? If not, pause here. These habits set the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy eating and are worth exploring if you do not have them already set in place.

2.     Reduce foods high in sugar but low in nutrients. For adults age 20-50, the top five sources of added sugar are pop, energy and sports drinks, grain-based desserts (e.g. cake, cookies), fruit drinks, candy and sugars/honey. Why not make changes here first? Be mindful about how much you need to be satisfied when you choose these high sugar foods.

3.     Increase your exposure to less sweet options, then repeat. As mentioned above, the more often you try something, the more likely you are to accept and even start to enjoy the food. This doesn’t mean going cold turkey or torturing yourself with foods that stimulates your gag reflex. Think about where you’re at right now, gradually reduce the sweetness and see what changes you can make while still enjoying what you’re eating. This is the approach I used to help lower my sugar intake in coffee. I first started my coffee drinking habit with specialty drinks in university. Over time, I shifted to half-sweet lattes, then eventually to unflavoured lattes (usually with a sprinkle of cinnamon). Now, those regular specialty drinks don’t appeal to me.

What’s the key to lasting change?

Think back to the research findings. All of the benefits of retraining taste buds disappeared when people returned to their old habits. This is a great reminder to make sure you actually like, rather than barely tolerate, your lifestyle…or it won’t stick.

AFLCA members

Are you looking for practical nutrition tools for your clients? Log in to the AFLCA Members section of the website and order free resources today! A great option to compliment this blog is Sugar: The Sweet Stuff.



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Jaclyn Chute, RD

Registered Dietitian

Jaclyn (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and Project Manager at Dairy Farmers of Canada. She believes eating should be both nourishing and satisfying, and is passionate about helping others develop a healthy relationship with food.

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