Do you have picky eaters in your house? If you know someone who is extremely selective about the food they eat, they just might be a supertaster. For supertasters, the flavors of food are much stronger compared to average tasters. They experience taste with far greater intensity, and the research shows that supertasters are more sensitive to bitter tastes and fattiness in food.
Taste, smell, and flavor are distinctly different things. Taste and smell is clearly linked to our overall health. The sense of taste is actually built into our genes, while smell recognition is a learned experience.
When it comes to flavor, studies have shown it's easily the number one factor when we determine what to eat. But flavor is not something we actually sense. Instead, the flavor of food is created in our brain, based on what we taste in our mouth and smell with our nose.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the five well-recognized tastes are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (a savory, meaty taste). Our ability to sense each of these tastes has been part of human evolution to improve our chances of survival. For example, sweet tastes from fruit indicate a source of energy, while sour indicates spoiled food.
We don't want to bore you with too much science talk but understanding why we experience the flavor of food the way that we do is directly connected to our senses of taste and smell. Humans have a limited number of basic tastes, but we are incredibly sensitive to smell.
When it comes to the smell of food, we sense it in two different ways. The first is called orthonasal smell or sniffing through your nose. The second is called retronasal smell, and that happens when we chew and swallow food. The aroma is released up through the back of the mouth into the nose.
These two different ways of smelling food are actually processed in different parts of the brain. Retronasal smell is considered to be the most important method for sensing the aroma of food. It's also believed to be responsible for as much as 85 percent of the flavor of food.
Yes, genetics can play a major role in our ability to taste food. For years, it's been common knowledge that some people are extremely sensitive to bitter, while others don't perceive a bitter taste at all.
As a result, Professor Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida–a pioneer in the study of genetic differences of taste–created the terms supertaster and nontaster. Those who had the ability to taste bitter and were extremely sensitive to it were called supertasters. Those who couldn't taste bitter at all were nontasters, and everyone else was in the middle or average tasters.
Dr. Bartoshuk used a well-known bitter-tasting chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil, AKA "PROP", and found that approximately 25% of the population is extremely sensitive to the taste of this chemical. At the same time, an equal portion (25-30%) cannot taste it all. That leaves approximately half of the population as "average" in their ability to taste PROP.
The reason for the differences is that supertasters have many more visible fungiform papillae (bumps on the tongue). In other words, supertasters have more taste cells with receptors for bitter taste. They are also more sensitive to sweet, salty, and umami flavors. But, this is to a much lesser extent than bitter.
If supertasters can taste food better than everyone else, shouldn't they be eating and enjoying all kinds of food all of the time? Actually, the answer is no. Because supertasters are so sensitive to bitterness, they are usually very picky eaters and dislike many different types of food.
Because receptors for pain surround the taste cells, supertasters have more pain receptors. This means they don't like hot, spicy foods. Supertasters with greater sensitivity to prop also tend to eat fewer veggies because of their bitter taste.
On the plus side, supertasters aren't big on alcohol and are much less likely to smoke. They also have a reduced preference for sweet, high-fat foods. This means that supertasters have a lower body mass index (BMI) and better cardiovascular profiles compared to nontasters or "average" people.
Supertasters who can't handle prop also tend to be much thinner than others. The reason is pretty obvious. Those of us who love to eat sweets and high-fat foods are a lot heavier.
Who knew that flavor wasn't universal? Knowing that we all experience the flavors of food in a different way explains why some of us hate broccoli and others can't get enough of it.
If you want to know if you're a supertaster, there are test strips available that are easy to use. Or just try sticking out your tongue while looking in the mirror. That just might tell you everything you need to know.