|Are you a 'supertaster'?|
About a quarter of the population has an especially sensitive sense of taste. What does it mean, and how can you find out if you're one of them?
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.
This questionnaire has been used to help identify supertasters, although 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.
However, 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."
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.
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.".....
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