If you’re passionate about an art form, be it musical, visual or culinary, it can be galling when others claim to feel your beloved medium more intensely than you. Oh please, you might silently harrumph, you can’t prove that. And anyway, I can’t hear a note of the Carpenters without my Adam’s apple bobbing meaningfully, so bog off.But when it comes to tasting, superior sensitivity can actually be proven. A quick test could reveal you to be what sensory perception scientists refer to as a supertaster, medium taster or – oh dear – a non-taster. The basic laboratory assessment involves tasting a drug called propylthiouracil (commonly known as PROP), which is normally used to treat an overactive thyroid. If you find it very bitter, this means you’re a supertaster.
Test it yourself
This questionnaire has been used to help identify supertasters, although I worry these quizzes are too easy to cheat by simply guessing which answer will lead to your desired outcome. It’s far more fun to count your fungiform papillae, which house your taste receptors. If you apply some blue food colour to the tip of your tongue, where they’re at their most dense, the raised papillae should stay pink and stand out more. Hold a ring-binder re-enforcer over your tongue and count the dots within the circle. If you tally over 30, then: congratulations, you’re a super.
I cleared 30-35, which got me so excited that I quickly had to check how reliable this evidence was. “In addition to the number of taste papillae, we also have to take into account their sensitivity,” says Virginia Utermohlen, associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University. “It is a question of their function as well as their number.” Ah. Anyone know where I can score some PROP?
The term “supertaster” was coined in the 1990s by Linda Bartoshuk of Yale University, after she found that some people reported a bitter aftertaste to saccharin. She discovered that the tongues of supertasters were densely populated with papillae, and that they also found PROP bitter. The term caught on among scientists, and stuck.
However, as John Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State University, is quick to point out: “It’s not a superpower, you don’t get a cape and it doesn’t make you better than other people.” Utermohlen, who sits at the high end of the supertaster spectrum, says she prefers the terms highly, moderately and mildly sensitive tasters because “let me tell you right now, there’s nothing super about it. It’s annoying and limiting.” Just as being a super isn’t as fabulous as it sounds, being a non taster isn’t as rubbish. Not tasting PROP bitterness doesn’t mean you can’t taste anything. Your overall taste response is just subtler.
Supertasterdom isn’t even that rare. Around 25% of people are supers, 50% medium tasters and the remaining 25% are non tasters. Women, and people from Asia, Africa and South America have higher percentages of supertasters in their ranks.
A taste of superdom
Sugar is sweeter for supers, sodium is saltier, and bitterness is unbearable, but as well as this, the sensation from things such as carbon dioxide bubbles and chilli peppers is more pronounced. Fat is often reported as being creamier, and some supertasters can detect tiny differences in the fat content of milk. While everyone is unique, supers are less likely to enjoy alcoholic drinks, coffee and rich desserts. And weirdly, cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, are often cited by supers as tasting horribly bitter but actually, says Utermohlen, “they have a chemical in them that activates the noxious cold receptor in the mouth, a sensation that many people interpret as bitter.”
Despite their sensitivity, a 2010 study by Hayes found that supers can’t get enough salt. One explanation could be that salt blocks out the dreaded bitterness. “If you eat something like grapefruit, that is simultaneously sweet and bitter,” says Hayes, “and if you add just a little bit of sodium, a less bitter signal is getting sent up into the brain. By adding a little salt, you make the sweetness pop up.”
Supertasters, sommeliers and chefs
It is often assumed that the world’s top foodies must be supertasters, but the jury’s out on whether being one is something to brag about in the industry. Johnny Zhu, development chef at The Cooking Lab, which published the epic Modernist Cuisine at Home books, says that being a super hinders his work in some ways. “I have a preference towards certain things and I sometimes don’t give other foods a fair chance. For instance … [salad] is just repulsive to me.” He can, however, deconstruct dishes effortlessly.
When Utermohlen did a taste-sensitivity study on chefs (as yet unpublished), she found that they were mostly in the higher-medium range. Front-of-house staff came lower on the scale. This is interesting because the ambience of a restaurant is usually of greater importance to those with less keen tongues than it is for the supers, who zero in on the food.
In 2011 Hayes, along with Gary Pickering of Brock University in Ontario, looked at PROP bitterness perception among wine experts. Predictably, they were over-represented in medium and supertasters and underrepresented in non tasters. This raises the question of whether supertasters are super smellers, too. After all, a wine’s nose is key, and isn’t flavour generally around 80% down to smell? “There are some mechanisms by which the two could be related, but, on the other hand, it’s not like we have a ‘super smeller’ test, and no one’s ever really tried to chase that down,” says Hayes, who incidentally says there’s only a “tiny kernel of truth” to the 80% statistic, “because it ignores touch sensations like burn or astringency”.
Utermohlen’s hunch is that people with lots of taste buds tend to get more acute smell effects, “because the two kinds of messages link up together. And I think having more taste buds augments the message that comes in after the food is in the mouth and goes to the back of the throat and up the nose. But nobody knows.”
The health implications
“It’s a mixed bag,” says Hayes. “We know that supertasters may be a little fitter,” on account of being satisfied with less sugar and fat. But then they’ll go and use more salt, and avoid dark-green vegetables, which implies a greater risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
Utermohlen first grew aware of her unenviable gift when she could taste rubber from utensils used in her mother’s cooking. I don’t find this weird: I often taste chopping-board or washing-up liquid in food. Have you ever tasted traces of something to which others were oblivious? Do you have an idea of where you sit on the taste-sensitivity spectrum? Do you live to eat or eat to live?
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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