Did you know that some people have a heightened sense of taste? Here at XEN life we’ve already covered some strange human conditions like the rare ability shown by a small percentage of the human population to taste words and hear colours (see 20 Amazing Facts About Your Body).
Now let’s find out about supertasters! You probably know quite a few supertasters and don’t realise it. Supertasters could include your friend who dislikes bacon or your picky-eater relative. You might think they’re crazy, but their tongue may just be tasting things differently to yours.
Our Tongue and Sense of Taste
Our body works mysteriously as do our senses. The tongue is the only muscle in the body that can function without the support of a bone and is composed of eight different muscles (much like an octopus’ tentacles structure). An average tongue can taste 2, 000 to 10, 000 different flavours. Any more than that, and you might be a supertaster.
When we eat food, our taste buds recognise the taste or flavour of what we are eating after contact is made. The chemicals in the food which causes these tastes are called tastants. When the papillae of the tongue comes into contact with the taste buds, the sensory neurons send signals to the brain to identify the five main taste sensations which are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Supertasters are, as the name suggests, super sensitive to the bitter taste.
Although we always associate tongues with food, our tongue is important in other aspects such as speaking, kissing and swallowing. It can also signal something about underlying health conditions; a fat tongue can be a sign of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.
Tasters are categorised into three groups: the non-taster, the medium-taster and the supertaster. Non-tasters have fewer than 15 papillae, medium-tasters have 15-35 and supertasters have more than 35.
What is a Supertaster?
If you are a supertaster, you are part of the 25% of the population who have this unique trait.
Supertasters, due to high numbers of papillae on their tongue, are sensitive to tastes (especially the bitter ones). According to scientists, some people also have an increased chance of being a supertaster if they carry a gene that makes them sensitive to the taste of a chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil.
Supertasters tend to hate the bitter tastes of vegetables and instead opt for food that is salty to block out the bitter tastes. They are often on the lean side since they naturally dislike fatty foods. Researchers believe that their aversion to bitter tastes may have evolved as our own protective mechanisms against poisonous plants in the past.
On the brighter side of things, supertasters may experience intense pleasure from eating foods they love.
The word supertaster was first coined in the 1990’s by Linda Bartoshuk from Yale University.
Are you a supertaster?
There are several ways to determine if you are a supertaster. Of course you can do some personal observations, go to a doctor or do this simple papillae counting test.
What you’ll need:
- Blue food colouring
- cotton swab
- plastic reinforcement ring
To start, use your cotton swab to dab the tip of your tongue with the blue food colouring. Then put the plastic reinforcement ring on the tip of your tongue and face the mirror. Inside the ring, there will be pink visible bumps. If there are more than 30 bumps, then you are a supertaster. If it’s hard for you to see, try using a magnifying glass or ask a friend to do it.
Another test may include the use of PROP, but you may need to consult a doctor for this. PROP is usually put into water for mouth swishing or saturated on a small sheet of paper above your tongue. Those who are supertasters may begin to taste the unpleasant taste very soon after placing the PROP on their tongue. This can be overwhelming and may even cause nausea for some. Those who are on the medium scale will taste a slight bitterness while the non-tasters will find no other taste but water.
If you can’t do these simple tests right now, you might like to try answering the following questions:
- Do you have sensitivity to bitter taste?
- Do you dislike dark green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and brussel sprouts?
- Do you detect too much bitterness in grapefruit?
- You can’t stand creamy and fatty foods, salad dressing for example?
- Do you find beers and other hard drinks to be too bitter?
- Do you prefer salty foods?
- Do you dislike strong coffee?
- Do you find dark chocolate bitter for your own taste?
- Can’t stand sugary and sweet foods?
- Do you dislike the taste of full fat dairy products?
- Do you feel more tingle from carbonated drinks?
If you said yes to most of these things, then you are possibly a candidate. However, it’s hard to confirm without testing properly. Here are the reasons why the above questions can help determine if you are a supertaster:
- As we mentioned, supertasters taste bitterness more than others.
- Broccoli, spinach and brussel sprouts are bitter vegetables.
- The bitterness in grapefruit is basically undetectable to medium and non-tasters while it is said to be more pronounced for supertasters.
- Supertasters can’t stand creamy foods and have developed an aversion to fatty foods.
- They can’t stand beers or hard drinks (most supertasters request something to chase down the bitterness in alcoholic drinks).
- Despite their supertasting capacity, supertasters tend to veer towards foods that are salty since it drowns out any bitter tastes.
- Sweet and sugary foods may taste too sweet to a supertaster.
- Full fat dairy also does not sit well with supertasters.
- Supertasters also are sensitive to carbonated drinks due to their extra taste buds.
Most supertasters have an uncanny ability to ward off bacterial sinus infections since their bitter taste receptors are better, especially in the nose. Taste receptors, contrary to popular belief, aren’t just located in the tongue but in the nose, gut and brain.
However, suspertasters may face increased health risks since they shy away from bitter tasting vegetables. In a study published in Digestive Diseases and Sciences, the ability to taste bitter flavours is said to be directly linked to a higher risk for developing cancer. But since supertasters also have less cravings for fatty and sugary foods, they may have a lowered risk of cardiovascular diseases.
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You see, food preferences may not only be shaped by the environment or the way we were conditioned when we were young but it is greatly influenced by the genes as well. Your taste sensitivity may be inherited from your parents or your grandparents. This may impact your food choices through life. Though supertasting occurs in people all around the world, it’s more prevalent among Asians and South Africans. Supertasters are very useful as culinary experts and wine experts. They can taste the subtle differences in foods prepared.
So, are you a non-taster, medium-taster or a supertaster? Tell us in the comment section below!