Friday, February 22, 2008

Food Finds: Supertaster?

By Pat Tanner

It seemed like a good idea at first, but when the day came to be tested I had serious misgivings. I had met Dr. Beverly Tepper, director of Rutgers' Sensory Evaluation Lab, through friends, and when I learned that her area of research involved taste perception, I thought it only natural – fun even - to offer up myself as a test subject. And to subsequently report on where I fall on a scientific scale that measures, in effect, the sensitivity of one’s taste buds.

But as the appointed hour approached, I began to fret. Where would I test out along the spectrum of supertasters, tasters, and nontasters? What if I, a food writer and restaurant critic, had to confess to being a nontaster? Not a smart move.

Tepper uses a compound called PROP to measure the ability to taste bitterness. It turns out that perception of bitterness is a genetically based indication of how sensitive a person is to a whole range of tastes, including sweet, fat, and spiciness. Research indicates that supertasters – those whose sensitivity to bitter is highest – also have more taste buds.

So supertaster is what I wanted to be, or so I thought. Supertasters, it turns out, typically dislike a lot of foods, in part because they experience them so intensely. A typical supertaster dislikes the bitterness of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and dishes with hot chilies. Hmm…not the best qualifications for a food critic.

Where people fall depends on their response when a piece of paper embedded with the PROP compound is placed on their tongues. Supertasters experience an overwhelmingly unpleasant, acrid sensation. Tasters detect some bitterness, but not to the same get-this-abomination-off-my-tongue degree. Nontasters wonder what all the fuss is about, since they detect nothing at all.

Tepper says that research has consistently shown that 25% of Caucasians are nontasters, 50% are tasters, and the remaining 25% are supertasters. “Other ethnic groups have different breakdowns,” she says. “The split around the world is quite different.”

Learning all this did little to ease my tension as I walked into her lab. She tried to reassure me by saying, “If you are a nontaster, it’s OK. Being a taster - or not - has no bearing on flavor detection,” since, as she pointed out, the majority of flavors we perceive come through the aromas our noses pick up.

It took just a few moments in the testing booth before I got the (wait for it) bitter results. I am, in fact, a supertaster.

Tepper can explain this apparent contradiction. “I have come to realize that supertasters fall into two behavioral categories: those who are adventurous eaters and those who are not.” Well, I am nothing if not adventurous. (Oatmeal-toasted mealy worms, anyone?). My own theory is that adventurous supertasters probably enjoy the intensity – the frisson – of pushing the limits of their sensitive taste buds. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Want to know if you’re a supertaster? A kit, containing two tests per order, is available commercially for $4.95 at:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A dear friend of mine is a supertaster. (She was tested while employed at Pepsi.) God, I hate having her over for dinner. :-)