How an explosion revealed a superpower
“Well, it’s just a matter of taste,” you may say to a friend when disagreeing about the flavor of food. Now many scientific studies support this common experience: some people have a more acute sense of taste than others. We all live in different taste worlds.
The wonderful and varied taste of our favorite foods is one of life’s great pleasures. All the thousands of tastes we experience are combinations of five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and the newest one, umami, which we taste in dried fish flakes, tomatoes, and cheese. Each of these tastes has specific taste receptors and our brains combine the sensations from these receptors to produce the myriad of tastes we experience. Each of us is unique.
Those people with more intense taste sensations than others are called supertasters. Family and friends often label supertasters as picky eaters. Supertasters are very sensitive to tastes, particularly strong tastes. An aversion to bitter tastes, such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts, is a hallmark of a supertaster. To a supertaster, cilantro tastes bitter and soapy, and their reaction to finding it in a dish they are eating is intense disgust.
Supertasters don’t crave sweets and may find some sweet foods like ice cream too cloying and unappetizing. Foods high in fat are also less appealing. Similarly, even mildly spicy foods may be painfully intense. They avoid these foods because their senses overload.
“That explains so much,” says New York Times columnist David Pogue, when he learned he is a supertaster. “I can’t tell you the number of dinners I have had where everyone is like, ‘Oh, you are such a hot pepper wuss,’ says Pogue.”
Because supertasters eat less sugar and less fat, they often have low body weight and a slender build. They are less likely to have cardiovascular difficulties than people who are not supertasters. They usually are non-smokers and often don’t like coffee.
What gives some people this superpower? Supertasters have more taste buds, up to twice as many, on the surface of their tongues as average tasters. The number of taste buds is a matter of heredity, just like height, weight, and hair color. The gene for supertasting is dominant. A supertaster is someone who has received two super tasting genes, one from each parent. About a quarter of the population are supertasters, half are regular tasters, and the remaining quarter are less sensitive to taste.
Women often have more taste buds than men and more than two-thirds of the supertasters are women. Some evidence suggests that different areas of the world may have greater proportions of supertasters.
However, along with more taste receptors, supertasters also have more pain receptors on their tongues. They can feel very painful reactions to some foods. Also, they can experience awkward moments at dinner parties. “My aversion to strong-tasting food causes social problems as people think there’s something wrong with me,” says supertaster Steve Grant.
In Our Genes
Our taste buds sit on our tongues, enclosed by slight bumps called fungiform papillae. Each taste bud has 50 to 150 individual taste receptors. Scientists are still studying how the brain combines the messages from the various taste buds to compose the flavors we taste in food.
Professor Linda Bartoshuk, an experimental psychologist at the University of Florida, the leading authority on supertasters, coined the term. She specializes in genetic variation in taste perception. She says that there are 25 different genes that help us identify bitter tastes. Why do bitter things get so much attention from our genes? Poisonous plants often have a bitter taste, so our ancestors who could sense a small amount of a toxin had an advantage in evolution.
Supertasting, like many discoveries in science, happened by accident. An explosion in a DuPont lab of Arthur Fox in 1931 blasted the chemical phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) all around the building. The next day, even after the cleanup, some workers reported feeling an intense bitter taste in their mouths. Many others reported only a mildly bitter sensation, while the rest noticed nothing at all. Just like that, the concept of supertasters burst on the scene.
All our senses and sensory experiences are more complex than simply the number or acuity of our sense receptors. Taste is no exception. We know that our sense of smell is also crucial to our taste experience and know first-hand that a head cold can make food you like seem less tasty. We also know too little about the role of the brain in composing our palette of tastes. Also, environmental factors play a role that is less understood at present. Still, the number of tastebuds on a tongue is strongly related to taste sensitivity.
How do you know if you’re a supertaster? Many people already have a good hunch about whether they are a supertaster. They have had enough experience while eating with others to observe if some foods they find too intense or aversive are tasty and pleasing to others.
There are two other ways to find out if you are a supertaster. First, you can count the papillae on an area of your tongue. Second, there are test strips that will indicate if you are a supertaster. Since this makes a good science project, I’ll try out both methods and report back in a post, giving full how-to instructions.
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