Past research suggests that people with opioid dependence show increased consumption of sweet food, but it is unclear if this is influenced by altered taste preference and/or taste perception.
We tested whether people prescribed opioid substitution therapy (OST) exhibited a shift in preference towards sweeter flavours, and altered perception of sweetness, and explored whether these measures of taste preference/perception were associated with measures of opioid use.
Three groups of participants (people prescribed OST, n=36; people with past opioid dependence, but now abstinent from all opioids, n=18; and controls with no history of substance dependence other than nicotine, n=29) provided ratings of “sweetness”, “liking”, and “desire” of 4 solutions with varying concentrations of sucrose.
We did not find significant differences between groups in the effect of sucrose concentration on “sweetness”, “liking”, or “desire” ratings. However, among those prescribed OST, frequency of recent illicit opioid use was associated with reduced perception of “sweetness” of low sucrose concentrations. Higher methadone dose was associated with a shift towards liking sweeter concentrations. Among those with past opioid dependence, longer duration of abstinence from opioids was associated with a shift towards liking sweeter concentrations.
Among people currently dependent on opioids, reduced sensitivity to low levels of sweetness and increased preference for sweeter flavours may be associated with increased dependence on opioids. Among those who have ceased opioid use, the association between preference for sweeter flavours and duration of abstinence is a novel finding that deserves further investigation.
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We would like to thank the pharmacies that distributed our recruitment leaflets to their OST patients, as well as the rehabilitation and supported accommodation services (Bridge Program, Odyssey House, Oxford Houses, Quin House, Raymond Hader Clinic, Reconstructing Life After Dependency (RLAD), Self Help Addiction Resource Centre (SHARC), and Windana Drug and Alcohol Recovery), who generously allowed us access to their residents and facilities. We would also like to thank Cassandra Jovic for her assistance in developing online advertising used to help recruit control group participants.
Availability of data and materials
Due to the conditions of ethical approval, individual level data (including deidentified data) is confidential and cannot be disclosed to people who were not approved as project personnel by the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee. Data can only therefore be made available with further approval from the MUHREC, and anyone interested in accessing it should contact the corresponding author.
This research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC Project grant 1079891). The NHMRC had no role in designing this study, analysing or interpreting the data, writing this manuscript, or the decision to submit it for publication.
Conflict of interest
Joshua B. B. Garfield has no conflicts of interest to declare. Dan I. Lubman has provided consultancy advice to Lundbeck and Indivior; has received travel support and speaker honoraria from Astra Zeneca, Janssen, Lundbeck, Shire, and Servier; and has been an investigator on an untied education grant from Sequirus, unrelated to the current work. None of these organisations were involved in the present project or stand to benefit from its findings.
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Garfield, J.B.B., Lubman, D.I. Associations between opioid dependence and sweet taste preference. Psychopharmacology (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-021-05774-2
- Opioid dependence
- Opioid use disorder
- Opioid substitution therapy
- Opioid abstinence