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Issue 173: Pancreas' Sweet Tooth

Pancreas' Sweet Tooth

For all of us who previously thought that taste resided only in the tongue, here’s a news flash: your pancreas can “taste,” too. In fact, it has sweet-taste receptors such as those found on the tongue that can “taste” fructose—and that’s not a good thing.

Here’s how pancreas' sweet tooth was discovered: in lab studies of pancreas cells from humans and mice, the scientists found that when the pancreas tastes fructose from foods, it responds by making more insulin. Insulin, of course, is a hormone allowing sugar from the blood to enter the body’s cells, but excess insulin or inefficient insulin use is linked to type 2 diabetes, obesity and other metabolic issues, say the researchers. Results of this study can be found in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study’s senior author, Bjorn Tyrberg, an assistant professor and scientific advisor in histology and cellular imaging at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in Orlando, Florida, said, “The coolest thing in my mind is that we now understand that taste isn’t only for the tongue. We have a whole slew of cells for controlling how we deal with sugars.”

Fructose had not been proven to be linked to insulin secretion in the past, Tyrberg adds, but this study shows that when the pancreas tastes fructose, there is an effect on insulin. There are effects, too, when glucose is present. When fructose and glucose are encountered together, which happens with many common foods today, even more insulin is released.

Dr. Spyros Mezitis, an endocrinologist and clinical investigator at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, takes the double whammy of fructose and glucose further. He said the study showed that “when you eat fructose and glucose together, you get even more of an insulin release. That means sugar gets out faster, and the body is pushed harder.” He adds, “If you have high sugar consumption, you may tire out your pancreas, and that exhaustion might cause the pancreas to not release enough insulin anymore. If you already have type 2 diabetes, this could push the body more and hasten the progression of the disease.”

To be sure, fructose and glucose are two different forms of sugars. For example, fructose can be found in foods such as honey and fruits. Another form of fructose, high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, is routinely added to many processed foods and can be especially hazardous to health.

Under normal circumstances when we eat, beta cells in the pancreas react to the rise in glucose levels by secreting more insulin, which attaches to other cells in the body and opens the cells to allow glucose in for energy. These researchers, however, wanted to find out what role fructose played in insulin release.

They sure found out and learned that the pancreas has an unhealthy sweet tooth that results in more insulin release.


This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

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