Supertaster Test

Photo by Saman Taheri on Unsplash

With flavors of chocolate and red fruits, this Barolo [red wine] has a strong backbone of tannins. 


Some people can see better than others, with vision like eagles. Some people can hear better, detecting subtle sounds as a dolphin hears the sounds of small fish swimming. And some people are extra sensitive to taste. A recent post discussed supertasters and their ability. This post follows up to experiment with a supertaster test and to find out whether I was a supertaster. I had my doubts.

The flavor of the food we taste combines the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and the newest one, umami, which is a savory flavor. The complex flavors of our favorite foods are a blend of these five basic tastes. This is very much like the range of colors we see around us in the world, which are a blend of the three basic colors of light for which our eyes have receptors: blue, red, and green. Taste has an evolutionary advantage for humans and animals. Ripe fruits taste sweet. Many toxic plants taste bitter. The ability to distinguish these tastes helps us find good food and avoid poisonous food. For our ancestors, it may have been a matter of life or death. 

Our Test

To run this test, I ordered a supertaster lab kit online with four different types of test strips: phenylthiourea (PTC), sodium benzoate, thiourea, and a control strip with no chemical.

 I recruited two family members and a friend to join me in this test. We did four rounds, so everyone tasted each strip, including the control strip. I mixed up who got what strip in what order so that one person’s reactions would not influence another. I gave everyone a test strip to touch to their tongues and then write down what they tasted. The results were fascinating.

Our Results

We had fun doing this test sitting around the dining room table and might repeat it at a dinner party — a great conversation starter. The responses to the tasting were immediate and dramatic — all except for me. My daughter, my wife and our friend all made faces and exclaimed their disgust for the PTC and varied reactions to the others.

In my pretest of the materials, I tasted nothing on any of the strips. I assumed I was a normal taster with no special sensitivity. However, I later realized I had been drinking black coffee during the test. Did this make a difference? I tasted two of the strips this time, but certainly not to the degree the others did.

This lab kit separates into people into four groups: normal tasters, standard supertasters, recessive supertasters, or dominant super tasters. My daughter and our friend tasted all three chemicals, PTC, thiourea, and sodium benzoate. The PTC and the thiourea were bitter to them and the sodium benzoate had a sour citrusy taste for them. They are then dominant supertasters. My wife tasted both the PTC and the thiourea, as I did. However, she clearly tasted the chemicals much more intensely than I did.

What we learned

 First, even with the same test strip, there is a range of sensitivity to the test chemical. Is there a relationship between the intensity of the taste to the number of taste buds on an individual’s tongue? This seems likely and might be a good follow-up test.

Also, the same chemical can have different tastes for different people. For our group, the tastes were relatively similar, though there was some variety. The written responses, however, varied widely in the richness of the descriptions. Two of our four participants wrote short sentences to describe their responses and one person wrote long and very nuanced descriptions of how she experienced the taste. I tended toward two- or three-word descriptions; just the facts, ma’am.

Does this reflect a difference in the sensation experienced or in creative writing skill? I’ve often wondered how wine tasters experience tastes, like ‘earthy,’ ‘oaky,’ ‘smoky,’ and ‘rounded.’ My wife described how the taste of the strips changed for her within a few seconds. I’ve since learned that this change is what wine tasters often mean by ‘complex.’

Our informal test supports the idea that people experience the taste of a substance in many ways and in various intensities. We really do all live in our own unique universe of sensory experience. Our own taste palate senses a huge palette of colorful taste impressions.

My book Teen Innovators is now available online.

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