Ever realize that you react much more strongly to certain foods than your peers? Do you blanch at bitter entrees as your friends scarf them down? Do you avoid vegetables and seek out the dessert tray, even when the strawberry cheesecake looks like it was prepared during the Clinton administration?
If so, there’s a decent chance you’re a supertaster. It’s pretty much what it sounds like; supertasters are more sensitive to certain flavors, and therefore more likely to have strong reactions to certain dishes. They’re more likely to be picky eaters, and they tend to dislike spicy foods. You would, too, if every jalapeño tasted like the furious heat of a thousand suns.
The science behind supertasting is pretty fascinating since it reveals some surprising facts about how we perceive our sense of taste. Experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, led the research group that discovered supertasters in the 1980s.
“Basically, we were doing this research, and there were certain subjects that kept turning out the best, in terms of the taste experiences they had,” Bartoshuk tells Urbo. “They experienced most intense tastes in every experiment we did with them. And we started calling them ‘supertasters’ in the lab, and it sort of caught on.”
We spoke with Bartoshuk to discuss her work with those supertasters—and to find out how she stumbled onto one of the more sensational (pun intended) discoveries of taste science.
At the time, Bartoshuk’s team was studying how people taste bitterness.
In their experiments, they used a compound called phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC (we’ll just stick with the acronym since we broke several keyboards trying to type that correctly).
“There were two categories of people, in those days,” Bartoshuk says. “Non-tasters couldn’t taste PTC as bitter, but tasters recognized the bitter sensation.”
To be clear, “non-tasters” couldn’t identify PTC as bitter, but that didn’t mean they were less sensitive to other types of tastes. That’s an important distinction since Bartoshuk believes there are different kinds of supertasters and non-tasters.
“A non-taster for that one compound could be a supertaster for everything else,” Bartoshuk notes. “It just means they don’t have receptors for that one compound. And that terminology is very old—it goes back to the 1930s. So we try not to use that [term]. There are supertasters and non-supertasters.”
From successive experiments, we now know that PTC supertasters tend to taste sucrose (sweetness), sodium chloride (saltiness), and citric acid (sourness) more intensely than PTC non-supertasters. However, to get to that point, researchers had to figure out how to actually measure taste across different people.
To study differences in the perception of taste, scientists had to get creative.
Bartoshuk’s first attempted experiments with supertasters had a big problem: Taste is highly subjective, and people have different thresholds for unpleasant flavors. To measure study participants’ responses, she couldn’t simply ask them to rate each food on a scale of 1 to 10.
“Working on that research led me to develop the methods that allow us to detect the differences in perceived [taste] intensity,” she explains. “The methods that are used in sensory evaluation were devised to detect the difference between samples. For instance, ‘Is this diet soda sweeter than that one? Do people like this better than that?’”
Those types of questions wouldn’t really work for Bartoshuk’s research.
“We were comparing people,” she says. “We can’t share conscious experiences, so how in the world can I compare, say, how bitter coffee tastes to you, to how bitter it is to me? We cannot do it.”
In other words, you can’t easily gauge whether something tastes more bitter to you than it tastes to your friend. You could try borrowing your friend’s tongue, sure, but they might object to that.
“So we developed an indirect method,” Bartoshuk explains. “It’s called the method of magnitude matching [link opens a PDF]. What you do is you find a sensation that you believe is unrelated to what you want to compare—and this is really tricky stuff to do. But, for example, let’s say we want to compare several supertasters, and we want to know if they taste sweetness more than non-supertasters do.”
“Here’s how we found out: Suppose I put earphones on your head and I play a sound at a certain intensity. I might say, ‘I want you to compare the sweetness of Coke to the sounds I’m asking you to listen to. Is the sweetness of the [Coke] more intense than the sound is loud?’”
To a layperson, that sounds kind of ridiculous at first. We can’t imagine comparing a taste to a loud noise, even if that loud noise comes from, say, a terrible Canadian rock band (“Yes, this urinal water is clearly better than Nickelback,” we might say).
But as Bartoshuk tells us, the human brain is actually remarkably good at handling those types of comparisons. It’s a process called cross-modality recognition, and while it’s somewhat complicated, it works.
“We assume that everyone hears the sound the same way,” she says. “Now, if you have a big group, you might have some people with some hearing problems, but the average ability to hear is probably not that different across the two taste groups. And that’s how you make the taste comparison—by comparing taste to sound.”
The students are taking part in experiments to see if they have certain genes that make them taste certain flavours, have certain physical traits or even if they're colourblind! Some of us are dominant supertasters! pic.twitter.com/gcXphCPgll
— FutureNeuro Centre (@Futureneuro_ie) November 14, 2017
That clever innovation allowed Bartoshuk’s team to identify PTC supertasters, which quickly launched dozens of other investigations into the phenomenon.
Some supertasters seem to have physical differences.
If you want to figure out if you’re a supertaster, there’s one easy way to check: Rub your tongue with blue liquid, then press it on a piece of paper.
Stay with us here.
“We found that [many supertasters] have more [fungiform] papillae,” Bartoshuk says. “We can see the difference on their tongues.”
She’s careful to note that this isn’t necessarily true for all types of supertasters, and the cross-modality experiments she developed still provide the best methods of analyzing the super-tasting phenomenon.
With that said, you can perform a simple experiment at home to determine if you’ve got the tongue of a PTC supertaster (and definitely not a gross, weird one). Basically, you’ll put some blue food coloring on the front third of your tongue, then gently press your tongue onto a piece of paper (the BBC has a more thorough explanation of the process here). If you can count more than 35 papillae, you’re a supertaster.
Well, sort of. Once again, the science gets complicated.
There’s more to supertasting than simply having superpowered taste buds.
“We know that there are differences in the brain because it turns out that supertasters love food more than others,” Bartoshuk says.
[pullquote align=”center”]I am not a supertaster, so if you ask me how much pleasure I get from my favorite food, on the scale we use, I’d probably give it about a 60. A supertaster might give it an 80 or a 90.[/pullquote]
That makes sense; taste and smell have to be processed by the brain before we enjoy them, and if you regularly have intense experiences with food, you’re likely to develop some preferences. To psychologists, however, the intensity of those preferences is a crucial factor. Supertasters seem to experience food differently, neurologically speaking, and extra taste buds don’t sufficiently account for the extent of the phenomenon.
“A supertaster loves his or her favorite food, compared to the intensity that the pleasure would be for someone else,” Bartoshuk notes. “I am not a supertaster, so if you ask me how much pleasure I get from my favorite food, on the scale we use, I’d probably give it about a 60. A supertaster might give it an 80 or a 90.”
So why do we have supertasters, anyway? Researchers are still trying to figure out what factors influence the development of a person’s supertasting abilities (we suggested that it involves being bitten by a radioactive spider, but apparently that’s unrealistic).
Bartoshuk believes that supertasting is genetically influenced.
Since she’s a groundbreaking researcher in the field of taste genetics, we’re inclined to take her at her word.
“We think that there are going to be genetic differences [between supertasters and non-supertasters],” she says.
The extent of supertasting abilities also seems to vary somewhat. We do know that there are quite a few PTC supertasters out there; according to Scientific American, about 25 to 30 percent of people are thought to be supertasters, 40 to 50 percent are thought to be average tasters, and 25 to 30 percent are thought to be non-supertasters. Those numbers might be inaccurate, though, simply because the research on supertasting is still basically in its infancy, despite several decades of research.
“You couldn’t possibly follow all of the changes [in the research],” Bartoshuk says.
In any case, we at least know that supertasters exist and that they’re relatively common. That helps to explain some of the awkward meals we’ve had with family, friends, and significant others. If you’ve ever felt out of place because you simply couldn’t stand a certain food—or if your passion for your favorite ingredients seems overwhelming to the people around you—you’re certainly not alone.
You are, however, a superpowered freak. Enjoy your newfound abilities responsibly.