Think of your favorite and least favorite foods. Can you explain why you like or dislike them? It probably comes down to the flavor, but flavor is more complicated than you might expect. A lot goes on when you eat or drink — and not just in your mouth. Your perception of flavor is the result of a complex system combining your senses of taste and smell. Depending on your genetics and the unique arrangement of taste buds on your tongue, you may be extra-sensitive to certain qualities and textures. In other words, you may be a supertaster.
You've probably heard the term "supertaster" before. But what makes someone a supertaster, and how do you know if you are one?
How We Taste Foods and Beverages
We perceive the flavors of food through a combination of taste and smell. Taste primarily concerns the tongue, which is covered with tiny bumps, called papillae, that contain sensitive taste buds. Each taste bud houses 50 to 100 receptors for detecting and processing tastes. Generally, people have receptors for five distinct qualities: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. (According to an article from the Harvard School of Public Health, it's likely our ability to distinguish these tastes evolved as a means of survival for the earliest humans, as foods that were sweet contained energy in the form of sugars, and salty foods helped them retain water for metabolism and other bodily functions. A sour taste, conversely, might indicate that a food had spoiled and shouldn’t be eaten, while bitterness could be used to identify toxins in plants.)
These receptors are distributed all over the tongue, rather than grouped together in specific sections on the tongue’s surface — so the “tongue map” you may have seen in science class is not exactly accurate. (Taste receptors also exist in organs such as the stomach and pancreas, but they serve a different purpose there than in the mouth.)
When the receptors on your tongue pick up on a taste, they transmit that information to the central nervous system. But taste receptors account for only a fraction of food's flavor. Research suggests that a majority of the sensory details we detect come from a food’s aroma. Some experts say as much as 80% of what we perceive as taste is smell, but it's unclear where that number originated. In any case, scent is key to flavor. Olfactory receptors in the nose and the back of the mouth detect volatile compounds released from food, and send corresponding signals to the brain, where they’re combined with taste signals to conjure the food’s flavor. For some people, however, those taste signals are a little — or a lot — stronger.
What Makes Someone a Supertaster?
Researchers have been studying the science of taste for decades, but the concept of "supertasters" is relatively new. The term was coined in the 1990s by psychologist Linda Bartoshuk, who identified a subset of people for whom tastes (and especially bitter tastes) are more intense. In an experiment at Yale University, she gave a super-bitter compound called PROP to study participants and asked them to rate the intensity of the bitterness they experienced. Her results indicated that about 25% of people can’t taste PROP at all, about 50% are moderately sensitive to it, and the remaining 25% are “supertasters” who have an above-average sensitivity to the substance. Supertasters also perceive more intensity from sweet tastes, and more of a “burn” from alcohol or spicy foods.
Bartoshuk theorized that this is because supertasters have an unusually dense collection of taste receptors.By this logic, one way to determine if you’re a supertaster is to count the number of fungiform papillae on your tongue. Using the hole punched in a piece of loose-leaf paper as a guide, add up the number of large bumps within the circle. If there are 30 or more, you may be a supertaster.
Of course, there are other factors to consider, too. The density of papillae on your tongue tells only part of the story, and some scientists question whether there's a correlation at all. Genetics — specifically variants of the T2R38 bitter taste receptor gene — may also play a part, although researchers are still investigating how. Additionally, women are more likely to be supertasters than men, but again, experts don't fully understand why.
Supertasters Are More Sensitive to Certain Flavors and Textures
Although supertasters are generally more sensitive to all five distinct taste qualities, their sensitivity to bitterness is thought to be especially heightened. While people with average taste perception often like the pleasant bitterness of cabbage, broccoli, grapefruit, or coffee, supertasters might push these foods to the side. In a study published in 2006, researchers asked people about their preferences for kale, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and other vegetables. The supertasters in the group, who rated PROP as highly bitter, said the vegetables were similarly bitter and reported lower intake than others in the study.
Supertasters may also be more attuned to fat, which some consider the sixth basic taste. Research suggests that while non-tasters and people with average taste perception prefer sweeter, higher-fat foods, supertasters seem to dislike them.
How Supertasting Might Affect Health
Perhaps not surprisingly, whether you’re an average taster or a supertaster could have an impact on your health. Supertasters who dislike the bitterness of vegetables, for example, may not eat enough of them. As a result, they may miss out on some of the benefits of a plant-based diet, such as reduced risk of disease. They may also consume more sodium than average tasters, as salt helps to mask bitterness.
On the other hand, research suggests supertasters may be more likely to avoid sweet, fatty foods and therefore have lower body-mass indexes and better cardiovascular stats. They also may avoid alcohol and smoking. That said, taste does not always dictate preference, so further research is needed.