The bitter taste that keeps you alive

Find out about the foul-tasting compound that prevents people from drinking antifreeze, rat poison, and shampoo. No, common sense isn't enough.

Taste buds aren't only there to let people know how much tarragon to add to a stew. They're meant to help people stay alive. Formed back when food was precious and often scarce, taste buds were attuned to high-energy foods that would help people pack on the pounds for times when food wasn't so available. Fats and sugars in abundance aren't good for the body, but back when they were hard to find, people who found them delicious and were willing to try extra hard to find them would be more likely to make it through a hard winter or a dry summer. Taste buds also helped steer people away from toxic or otherwise unhealthy foods.

But with new, manufactured products, people's taste buds are easily fooled. People who have had nothing but natural sugars or fruits all their lives find food sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup off-puttingly sweet. Vegetables can be dosed with chemicals until they taste like meat. Taste lies. It lies when it comes to food and, more disturbingly, it lies when it comes to products that aren't food. Chemicals that are highly toxic don't necessarily taste that way. How to keep people from drinking it?

One effective way to drive people away is bitterness. Although there are people who have a taste for bitter foods occasionally, there are few who want it all the time. Coffee is sweetened with milk and sugar. Grapefruit juice is mixed in with sweeter fare. Children are especially sensitive to bitterness, which is why many parents have so much trouble getting children to eat mildly bitter vegetables.

Enter denatonium benzoate, thought to be the most bitter compound in the world. This is potent stuff. Ten parts per million make a tasteless liquid disgusting to humans. And it has its work cut out for it. People love sweets, and people love alcohol. Anything with the word 'alcohol' in it is going to be a lure to some people. And things like detergent and antifreeze, though poisons, taste sweet on their own. A little denatonium benzoate can spoil the taste of harmful substances enough that people never think of tasting them. Some countries and states make it mandatory to add the compound to all such chemicals, and even when it's not mandatory, companies are happy to make their chemicals bitter enough to avoid a lawsuit. Considering the effectiveness of the stuff, it's a wonder why anyone hasn't come up with a denatonium benzoate diet - in which people spike whatever food looks best to them with it until they develop an aversion to it. Come to think of it - anyone who wants to learn about this fantastic new system can send in for my affordable, easy-to-follow weightloss guide. Supplies are limited.

Via About.com, and DenatoniumBenzoate.com.