"I think that the 'salt your coffee' trend started to pick up after a study was published in Nature in 1997. The study had participants taste and rate solutions of salt and bitter, sweet and bitter, and salt mixed with sweet and bitter," says Makenzie Bryson Jackson, MS, food scientist and product development manager at Panaceutics. "Surprisingly, they found that salt was much more effective in decreasing the awareness of the bitter compound than the sweet sugar solution. Salt also enhanced the perception of overall sweetness in the salt."
While adding a little salt to your food instantly makes it taste better, the trick works with coffee as well. Aside from blocking bitter flavors, it also amplifies the flavor of your coffee in general. "Food scientists and chefs around the world know that salt is a key ingredient in creating delicious foods," she says. "The perfect level of salt can elevate any food from just okay to something truly delicious. It also has a powerful effect to enhance good flavors and reduce the bad ones. It's interesting that this can carry over to coffee."
How to make coffee less bitter
According to Bryson Jackson, adding a grain or two of salt into bitter coffee suppresses the receptors on your tongue that would usually alert your brain to its bitter taste. "Our ability to taste has an association with our survival as a species: bitter signals that something is likely poisonous and we are averse to too much of it," she says. "The thought is that salt binds to the taste receptors and blocks the bitter compounds from binding to the bitter taste receptors." Suppressing that signal also allows you to better taste and enjoy the other flavors associated with coffee.
When you're using salt in your coffee to block out the bitterness, the key is finding the right balance for your palate. Bryson Jackson says you can do this by starting small and working your way up. Start by adding a little salt into your cup, stirring it, then tasting. If the bitterness isn't quite gone, continue the process until it fades. Or, take your kitchen science experiment to the next level.
"Everyone has their own unique threshold for bitter and salt. You could create a dropper bottle with a 20 percent salt and 80 percent water solution to find the right balance of salt for your coffee and better control how much sodium you’re adding," Bryson Jackson says. "Bitter is actually a genetic variant—some people are 'supertasters' and incredibly sensitive to anything bitter."
I don't love (or even like) coffee, but I took one for the team and tried this hack for myself. And, shockingly, three little grains of salt took the bitterness away. My brew actually tasted a little sweet. So who knows—with a hack this easy, my dream of becoming a real coffee drinker (not one who depends on an obscene amount of creamer!) might come true after all.
Here's a dietitian's guide to ordering at Starbucks:
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