Bitter Bites for Better Health?

10.16.18

By Diane Hess

Could bitter foods be the secret to a healthier body?

Scientists at the Hebrew University shed new light on the popular notion that bitter tastes are bad for you. Their findings could revolutionize nutrition, pharmacology, and medicine. According to Dr. Masha Niv, Vice Dean of Research at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment at the Hebrew University, “bitter isn’t always bad, and it is well known that sweet isn’t that good.”

For Dr. Niv, life is “bittersweet.” She joined the Smith faculty of the Hebrew University 11 years ago and has spent her career examining bitter and sweet molecules and the way our taste receptors recognize them.

Dr. Niv’s cutting-edge research reveals that the negative taste for bitter compounds – thought to have evolved as a mechanism to protect humans from consuming poison – has caused people to miss out on eating bitter, but healthy foods. It has also led to an overconsumption of sugar, which is often used to mask a bitter taste.

A year ago, Dr. Niv and Dr. Ilan Samish, founder of Amai Proteins, a Rehovot-based startup that makes sweet proteins for the food market, created the “Sweet Science Forum” to boost collaboration between academics and industry leaders. Its focus is to reduce sugar and make diets healthier.

By discovering what makes the sweet taste receptor tick, Dr. Niv said she hopes to “discover new sweeteners and sweetness enhancers.”

Dr. Niv’s lab is searching for a molecular combination that would improve the taste of sugar so that “we could use less but taste more sweetness,” she added.

Dr. Niv received her undergraduate and doctorate degrees in chemistry at the Hebrew University. She did her post-doctorate at Weill Cornell Medicine.