Growing up, many of us used dinnertime as a time for creativity. We came up with new ailments that would prevent us from eating our side salad or made our asparagus mysteriously disappear beneath our mashed potatoes. If you are one of those kids (or grown-ups) who detests Brussels sprouts and everything they stand for, fear not. For once, there might be a legitimate reason for skipping the greens—you could be a supertaster.
Although it sounds more like a cartoon character than a genetic variation, about 25 percent of the population are classified as supertasters—people who experience the sense of taste with a greater intensity than average. While it’s obvious that people’s preferences for spinach or sirloin differ, it’s interesting to think about the power of our buds and how they affect what we like and don’t like. Supertasters are proof that not all people experience taste in the same way.
Why So Bitter?
Although the true cause of this extra sensitivity is unknown, scientists believe that it’s due to an increased number of fungiform papillae, mushroom-shaped bumps on the top surface of our tongues that carry their own set of taste buds. In theory, it sounds great. With that extra set of sensors sitting on your tongue, you can enjoy an Indian dish ten times more than you already do, right? Not so fast. In truth, supertasters are less likely to enjoy certain foods, tasting overwhelming bitterness or burn where others cannot. Seemingly benign foods like green tea, soy products, chocolate, or carbonated drinks can cause problems, and intense foods are even worse. Chili peppers will burn with a greater fire, the bitter bite in a vodka tonic might make you cringe, and a black olive might taste like you just swallowed two packets of salt.
While most tastes are heightened, bitterness is the overwhelming effect for a supertaster. Take flavonoids, the healthy antioxidant chemicals found in vegetables and fruits. Supertasters are extremely susceptible to these chemicals—potentially making a spinach salad taste equivalent to an old cup of coffee. Next time your child is complaining about the foul taste of their Brussels, perhaps think twice about putting them in timeout; they just may be telling the bitter truth.
A Taste of History
So what about the rest of us? Are we taste-blind? In a way, yes. The idea of the supertaster gene was first brought to the table in 1931 by the chemist A.F. Fox, when he accidentally discovered that some people found phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) to be bitter while others found it tasteless. Upon further testing, “tasters” were divided into three categories: non-tasters (roughly 25 percent of the population), medium tasters (50 percent), and the remaining 25 percent of supertasters. However, this can vary due to gender and ethnicity; women have been found more likely to carry the supertaster gene, as have Asians and South Americans. These days, it’s thought that the gene could be a remnant of our evolutionary past, acting as a safety mechanism to stop us from eating unsafe foods and toxins.
The Take-Home Test
At least half of us can semi-identify what we’re biting into, but another quarter of us are walking blindly along a huge section on the buffet line of life. So how do we know which we are? Thankfully, as with most burning questions, there’s a test you can take at home for some answers.
According to BBC News and research from Yale University, here’s how: Take blue food coloring, a piece of paper with a seven-millimeter-wide hole punched through it, and a magnifying glass. First, swab some of the food coloring onto the tip of your tongue. The tongue will take up the dye, but the papillae (the tiny structures that house the taste buds) will stay pink.
Put the piece of paper on the front part of your tongue and, using the magnifying glass, count how many pink dots are inside the hole.
If you’ve just discovered your supertasting abilities, relish in this: most supertasters are more likely to become professional chefs or wine tasters, and tend to have a lower risk of heart disease, due to shying away from extremely fatty, salty, and sugary foods. So, although you may have to skip on the bitter beer, you’ve got an ability that more than a quarter of us are missing. Take a bite out of that.
Updated October 6, 2010