A Matter of Taste: The Super Palate Curse

Being a supertaster can be both a blessing and a curse

There are two kinds of food lovers: the elitists and the egalitarians. The first are the people who go on to become food critics and restaurant reviewers. They are the food snobs who know what they like and are unrelenting in their opinions. The egalitarians, on the other hand, are the ones who wax nostalgic about steaming bowls of tripe prepared by their mother in the winter, or the chicken feet they had at dim sum with their grandparents. For them, whether or not they like a food depends much more on the company and memories surrounding the dish than on the taste of the item itself. (Tripe, nota bene, is cow stomach.) These are the people who are hopelessly easy to please.

I am undeniably a member of the second camp.

When I was three I craved garlic string beans and green olives. My favorite treat was a bar of Rolos with a cup of black coffee. Favorite dish? Beef with Chinese bitter melon and black bean sauce. Call me precocious, but the real term for me is “nontaster.”

As a nontaster, I belong to about 25% of the population who have muted oral sensory experiences. Among other things, it means that I cannot taste a chemical called propylthiouracil (PROP), a compound similar to those found in plants of the mustard family. Sensitivity to PROP is a genetically determined trait. For nontasters like me, a slip of paper soaked in PROP tastes like, well, soggy paper, and for about half the population, it is faintly bitter. The remaining 25% of the population, the upper echelon of tasters, experiences the strip as unmistakably, repulsively bitter. Believe me, I practically chewed on that paper hoping that it would start tasting like something. But was I wrong to wish I could taste more?

“Supertasters” are those who experience heightened sensations from food and beverages. They are extra sensitive to bitter tastes, textures, carbonation, and spice; tend to avoid foods such as spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and strong coffee; and often abstain from bitter beers and bold wines. They often refrain from eating rich and fatty foods because they dislike the sensation that slick, creamy foods leave in the mouth. They find the bubbles in carbonated drinks especially irritating.

The term “supertaster” was coined in the early 1990s by Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a Yale University professor who specializes in genetic variation in taste perception. The supertasters, she believed, had an anatomical and biological basis for their elevated taste response. Scientists have long known that different areas on the tongue map to different taste sensations. Bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and savory (umami) all have their place on the tongue, and some researchers are now arguing that calcium-sensitive sites merit their place, as well. It makes sense, then, that having more tastebuds corresponds to a greater gustatory response in supertasters.

The emerging field of hedonics, the study of gustatory pleasure, is determined to pin down other biological dimensions of taste. Of course, less than 25% of the population become food critics, so there has to be more than just tastebuds and genetics determining gourmandism, including a complex knot of perceptive psychology, pre-natal diet, and cultural norms. We may never reach the stage where we can predict what food people will like and choose given their physiological profiles, but if the core of hedonics is correct, there must be a tangible link between our biology and our taste in food.

If this is true, what does it really mean to be a supertaster? The health consequences of a supertaster’s diet are complicated. On the one hand, a supertaster is less likely to reach for fatty foods, leading to lower levels of cholesterol and lower rates of cardiovascular disease. But their disinclination to reach for leafy greens limits their consumption of valuable cancer-fighting phyto-chemicals. In fact, supertasting abilities may be a relic from our evolutionary past, protecting our ancestors from eating poisonous alkaloid-containing plants. This theory is supported by the fact that most women in the first trimester experience heightened sensations of bitterness. It makes sense that temporary supertasting abilities act as a protective mechanism in the baby’s most crucial development stage. In the modern world of abundantly processed food where risk of dying by munching the wrong shrub is slim, though, this evolutionary relic may be disadvantageous.

In addition, heightened gustatory awareness often condemns supertasters to a life of picky eating. Though they are blessed with a heightened gustatory experience, supertasters are often repulsed and overwhelmed by flavors. The abundance of picky eating children corresponds to the fact that people are more likely to be supertasters when they’re little. Entire cookbooks have been devoted to clandestine cuisine—sneaking spinach in brownies and Brussels sprouts in muffins to trick kids into eating more vegetables. But is this effort misguided? Should parents instead praise their little darling for pushing away a bowl of broccoli, if being a picky eater foreshadows a life of gourmandism? Unless the picky eating is getting in the way of the child’s normal growth, the child’s palate should be allowed to develop normally by exposing him to flavors but not forcing them upon him. Tastebuds “maturing” may actually be tastebuds dulling.

So is being a supertaster a curse or a blessing? I often wish that I could glimpse the sensory world of supertasters where lemon tastes more bright, chocolate more rich, and rhubarb pie more vivid. Knowing when a bowl of chicken noodle soup is stale and not just “interesting” would in fact be helpful, but I would never trade my ability to get pleasure out of any dish for a guaranteed future as a food critic.

—Staff writer Rebecca A. Cooper can be reached at cooper3@fas.harvard.edu.