The taste of toxicity: A quantitative analysis of bitter and toxic molecules

Ido Nissim, Ayana Dagan-Wiener, Masha Y. Niv*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


The role of bitter taste—one of the few basic taste modalities—is commonly assumed to signal toxicity and alert animals against consuming harmful compounds. However, it is known that some toxic compounds are not bitter and that many bitter compounds have negligible toxicity while having important health benefits. Here we apply a quantitative analysis of the chemical space to shed light on the bitterness-toxicity relationship. Using the BitterDB dataset of bitter molecules, The BitterPredict prediction tool, and datasets of toxic compounds, we quantify the identity and similarity between bitter and toxic compounds. About 60% of the bitter compounds have documented toxicity and only 56% of the toxic compounds are known or predicted to be bitter. The LD50 value distributions suggest that most of the bitter compounds are not very toxic, but there is a somewhat higher chance of toxicity for known bitter compounds compared to known nonbitter ones. Flavonoids and alpha acids are more common in the bitter dataset compared with the toxic dataset. In contrast, alkaloids are more common in the toxic datasets compared to the bitter dataset. Interestingly, no trend linking LD50 values with the number of activated bitter taste receptors (TAS2Rs) subtypes is apparent in the currently available data. This is in accord with the newly discovered expression of TAS2Rs in several extra-oral tissues, in which they might be activated by yet unknown endogenous ligands and play non-gustatory physiological roles. These results suggest that bitter taste is not a very reliable marker for toxicity, and is likely to have other physiological roles.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)938-946
Number of pages9
JournalIUBMB Life
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


  • TAS2R
  • bitter
  • chemoinformatics
  • chemosensation
  • in-silico
  • taste
  • taste prediction
  • toxicity


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