Bitter taste sensitivity, food intake, and risk of malignant cancer in the UK Women’s Cohort Study



There is variability in sensitivity to bitter tastes. Taste 2 Receptor (TAS2R)38 binds to bitter tastants including phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Many foods with putative cancer preventive activity have bitter tastes. We examined the relationship between PTC sensitivity or TAS2R38 diplotype, food intake, and cancer risk in the UK Women’s Cohort Study.


PTC taste phenotype (n = 5500) and TAS238 diplotype (n = 750) were determined in a subset of the cohort. Food intake was determined using a 217-item food-frequency questionnaire. Cancer incidence was obtained from the National Health Service Central Register. Hazard ratios (HR) were estimated using multivariable Cox proportional hazard models.


PTC tasters [HR 1.30, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.04, 1.62], but not supertasters (HR 0.98, CI 0.76, 1.44), had increased cancer risk compared to nontasters. An interaction was found between phenotype and age for supertasters (p = 0.019) but not tasters (p = 0.54). Among women > 60 years, tasters (HR 1.40, CI 1.03, 1.90) and supertasters (HR 1.58, CI 1.06, 2.36) had increased cancer risk compared to nontasters, but no such association was observed among women ≤ 60 years (tasters HR 1.16, CI 0.84, 1.62; supertasters HR 0.54, CI 0.31, 0.94). We found no association between TAS2R38 diplotype and cancer risk. We observed no major differences in bitter fruit and vegetable intake.


These results suggest that the relationship between PTC taster phenotype and cancer risk may be mediated by factors other than fruit and vegetable intake.

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Body mass index


95% confidence interval


Food-frequency questionnaire


Gastrointestinal tract


Hazard ratio


Odds ratio






Socio-economic status


Taste 2 receptor 38


United Kingdom Women’s Cohort Study


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We thank the participants who took part in the UK Women’s Cohort Study, Mr. Neil Hancock for his contributions to data management for the cohort, previous cohort team members who contributed to data collection, and Ms. Yashvee Dunneram for advice regarding data analysis. The cohort was supported by funding from the World Cancer Research Fund (to JEC). JDL received support from the United States Department of Agriculture Hatch Program (Project No. 4565).

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Correspondence to Joshua D. Lambert.

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Lambert, J.D., VanDusen, S.R., Cockroft, J.E. et al. Bitter taste sensitivity, food intake, and risk of malignant cancer in the UK Women’s Cohort Study. Eur J Nutr 58, 2111–2121 (2019).

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  • Bitter taste perception
  • Cancer
  • Food choice
  • Epidemiology