After even just a few hours outside on a sun-drenched summer day, there’s nothing at all that tastes quite as refreshing to me as a cold, crisp glass of water. But for plenty of others, literally anything else to drink is preferable. But how could this be? Who are these people? Why is it that some people don’t like the taste of water?
Let’s get some basic parameters set up before we dive too deeply into this. Water insecurity is a very real thing that impacts the lives of far too many people around the world on a daily basis. Even so-called “developed” cities aren’t spared from water scarcity. Cape Town, South Africa is barely keeping a full-on humanitarian crisis at bay now that the city has depleted its water resources.
But for the sake of this exercise, let’s all assume that we’re talking about clean, potable water. Whether it comes from the tap or from a bottle, the question is, why don’t people like the taste of safe-to-drink water? Two main culprits probably provide the answer.
For starters, it’s critical to understand that not all human oral physiology is exactly the same. Only about half of the human population possesses what scientists would consider the “normal” amount of papillae, the tiny bumps on your tongue studded with clusters of taste buds. The remaining half of people are split up about evenly between so-called supertasters and non-tasters. The supers have above-average numbers of papillae, and a heightened sense of some tastes, while the tongues of nons have lower numbers of papillae, and experience diminished intensity of taste.
Whether or not you find the relatively mild (to most people) taste of water to be palatable in part stems from just how many buds you have doing the tasting in the first place. Supertasters in particular regularly report an aversion to bitter foods like raw vegetables. For these people, trace particulates and minerals found in water can trigger that same distasteful bitter response.
The second factor that contributes to an aversion to the taste of water is a bit more surreal. Simply put, your mouth doesn’t always taste the same way. Assuming you left for work in the morning without eating a thing, your mouth would eventually calibrate itself to a mildly salty taste. You don’t usually notice the taste slowly ramping up inside of your mouth, but as your body naturally dehydrates, your mouth takes on a salty quality.
When you eventually take your first swig of water, your mouth’s factory settings are reset, but not necessarily to the same place each time. Drinking water when your mouth’s salt receptors are activated results in your bitter or sour taste buds being switched on instead. Likewise, a sip of water after swallowing something acidic will result in your sweet receptors being activated.
The science behind this mild phenomenon is the same reason that sommeliers are able to advise guests at a restaurant which wines will pair best with the menu’s various entrees. A sip of a sweet white wine after a bite of a lemony grilled fish can trigger a playful response in your taste buds, making both the wine and fish taste brighter and more flavorful in your mind. An acidic, minerally wine could have the opposite effect, making both the wine and fish taste dull and diminished.
The good news here is that if you’re someone who hates the taste of water, you have some easy scientific body hacks available to you. Play around with all five of your tongue’s taste receptor types, sipping water after each. You may very well come to find that following even just a bite of something flavorful, water isn’t so bad after all. And thank goodness for that, because like it or not, you need plenty of water each day to survive – if even just to complain again tomorrow about the taste of water.