Supertaster? Or superdrinker? Take the test, super freak

If you don’t like NASA superfood-endorsed broccoli – nor coffee, dark chocolate or grapefruit juice – you are not alone, but you might be a supertaster.* About 25% of the population are supertasters with a much higher density of taste buds yet much of wine assessment is via the nose where you also find supersniffers (although this not always to your benefit either). If you love food more than most you may be a superstaster. Around 25% are non-tasters and the rest are somewhere in between – let’s call it the muffin curve.

Women are much more likely to be supertasters than men and more Asians are supertasters than the rest of the world. White males have the lowest rate of supertasters of any known group, and are generally also found taking extra lessons learning the cha cha.

The degree to which you experience wine’s bitterness, astringency and acidity is correlated with your taster status. Non-tasters have significantly lower intensity ratings for the bitterness, astringency and acidity of red wines than do tasters and supertasters.

Supertasters carry a double copy of a gene which makes them super-sensitive to bitter tastes but before you dash down to your local DNA lab, here are some simple tests you can try at home:

The easiest test to conduct is a Saccharin Test. Take one packet of saccharin (artificial sweetner) and combine it with two-thirds of a cup of water, and then taste it. For some, there will be a dominant sweet taste, indicating that they are an undertaster, while others will notice a dominant bitter taste, indicating they are a supertaster. Those who find balance between sweet and bitter are regular tasters.

Supertasters have more taste buds. These taste buds can be counted by swabbing your tongue with a cotton ball with blue food colouring. The fungiform papillae will not turn blue, but instead remain pink. Count how many pink spots you see toward the front of your tongue in an area about the size of a 10c coin. Supertasters will have more than 30 papillae in that area but remain alert to people with blue tongues.

For those with a taste for prescription drugs, get some propylthiouracil (PROP), a prescription-only thyroid medication drug. In this test, widely used by taste researchers, people are made to taste PROP and if they find it repulsively bitter, they’re deemed a supertaster – or undertasters if tasteless.

Superdrinker? Easy, keep your empties for a week and see if you can count them on one hand when sober.

How about a restaurant that tests reactions to an amuse-bouche before each meal and adjusting the dishes that follow to maximise customer satisfaction? “If a quarter of the population have a strong reaction to some tastes and another quarter have no reaction, it makes no sense for everyone to be given the same dish. There’s the potential to go out to dinner and leave not just having had a good meal, but knowing far more about your own taste,” says Charles Spence, of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology.
“Most people know of the link between smell and taste, but we’ve found taste is far more multisensory, including sight. If you put red colouring in white wine, for example, even wine experts perceive the flavour differently. In fact, the more expert they are, the more they are fooled. They drink the white wine and talk about the buttery, straw-like flavours and when you give them the same wine with red food colouring, they describe the tobacco and chocolate-like flavours,” says Spence

Then there’s hearing. Heston Blumenthal’s famous ‘sounds of the sea’ dish (where diners eat a fish pie while listening to the seaside through an iPod) served at the Fat Duck in Bray, came about from collaborative experiments with Spence. “What you hear at the time of eating can hugely alter your perception of what you taste,” he says, adding that experiments have shown that foods like carrots begin to taste unpleasant if you take the crunchy sound away.

Julie Mennella of Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Centre gave expectant mothers either carrot juice or tomato juice during their pregnancy, and tested the infants’ preferences after birth. The babies whose mother drank tomato juice didn’t like the carrot juice and vice versa, showing that taste preferences develop in the womb. “At birth, the baby will already ‘know’ what people in his or her culture eat, and have a preference for these foods,” says Virginia Utermohlen, associate professor at the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University, New York.

However, we become less sensitive – on average – as we get older. As we get past 40 there is a decline in taste and smell sensitivity, which may allow tolerance of more foods. Maybe we need new legislation prohibiting wine judges above a certain age? However, the decline doesn’t occur at the same pace for everyone. In one study, chefs on average showed less decline than others so maybe winemakers and wine judges are safe for now.

Neil Martin, director of the Human Olfaction Laboratory at Middlesex University, believes you can retrain your taste. “If you like sugar in tea or coffee and you eliminate the sugar immediately, you’ll find it horrid. But if you do it over a period of weeks – say, by a quarter of a teaspoon a week, by the end you will probably find the amount you originally had far too sweet. It never ceases to surprise people.”

– Jonathan Snashall

* 1st coined by Psychologist Linda Bartoshuk.
Reference – Kate Hilpern