If your child (or friend or spouse) turns up his or her nose at kale and cabbage, picky eating habits might not be to blame -- they could be genetically predisposed to dislike the flavor of certain foods.
So-called “supertasters” often experience bitter and sweet flavors more intensely, feel the burn from spicy peppers more keenly and are more attuned to the viscosity and creaminess of fats.
In a 2003 interview with New Scientist, University of Florida taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk said that supertasters live in a "neon taste world,” while other people’s tongues are stuck in a “pastel world.”
This ability is thought to stem in part from an increased number of tongue projections called fungiform papillae, which carry taste buds on the cap of their mushroom-shaped structures. The gene TAS2R38, which is linked to bitter taste reception, is also thought to play a role.
The phenomenon was discovered in 1931, when DuPont chemist A.L. Fox accidentally spilled a bit of a compound called phenylthiocarbamide, or PTC, while putting it in a bottle. One of Fox’s colleagues commented on the chemical’s bitterness, while Fox tasted nothing. Fox later presented research at that year’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, showing the responses of 2,500 people to PTC.
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If you suspect you might be a supertaster, your secret identity can be revealed in one of several ways. You can coat your tongue with blue food coloring and see if you have an above-average number of fungiform papillae. Or you can use a testing kit with PTC or another compound called propylthiouracil, or PROP. If you don’t taste anything, you’re a nontaster; taste something slightly bitter, and you may fall in a middle realm of the regular tasters; but if the chemical makes you gag, then you’re probably a supertaster.
Knowing your taste identity can help you identify what foods you are naturally inclined to like and provide strategies for mitigating the taste of foods that your tongue finds distasteful.
Supertasters’ heightened sense of bitter means they’re less likely to like bitter foods such as Brussels sprouts, kale, coffee, grapefruit and soy. And if you're ordering a drink for a supertaster, you may want to go with something sweet, like a fruity cocktail or martini, as opposed to more bitter spirits and beers.
However, there may be some advantages to flavor sensitivity. There’s some evidence that a female nontaster’s welcoming palate puts her at risk for packing on extra pounds. In a 2005 study published in the journal Obesity Research, Rutgers University researchers compared the body-mass indices of 40 middle-age women, a group that included eight nontasters, 18 medium tasters and 14 supertasters. They found that the nontasters tended to have higher BMIs than the tasters or supertasters. Another Rutgers group found a similar relationship in a study published in the journal Obesity in 2008 that examined 540 inhabitants of a small village in Italy.
Supertasters often have a natural distaste for certain kinds of fatty foods, which could be behind their relative svelteness.
There is some worry, though, that tasters and supertasters might not be getting all the nutrients they need due to their aversion to dark green vegetables, which often contain bitter-tasting compounds. Bartoshuk’s research has linked supertasting to a raised risk for colon cancer. In a 2005 paper published in the journal Digestive Diseases & Sciences, Bartoshuk and her colleagues discovered that the more a man was sensitive to bitter tastes, the less likely he was to eat his vegetables and he was likely to have more polyps in his colon.
For supertasters (or their families) worried about their health, a spoonful -- or even a dash -- of sugar may do the trick. Adding sugar to cooking water for vegetables, or roasting them, may be enough to mollify a sensitive tongue.