Superman’s superpowers were numerous. Not only did he have super-strength and super-speed, Superman had a heightened sense of vision and hearing. Noticeably absent was a refined palate.
One might assume the restaurant scene in Smallville was severely lacking. Or perhaps it had something to do with his genetic makeup; as a male Caucasian, Superman stands only a small chance of being a supertaster.
While superheroes remain anomalous, supertasters - who live in a much more intense world of taste - are fairly common. In Asian and African populations, as many as 95% of individuals are supertasters. In others ethnic groups, like Eastern Europeans, the trait is fairly rare. Among Caucasians, it is estimated that only 25% of the population carries the genetic predisposition; Caucasian supertasting women outnumber supertasting men by two to one.
Researchers have long studied the differences between groups of non-tasters and tasters. As a benchmark they use a compound, 6-n-propylthiouracil or PROP, to determine one’s ability to taste. PROP, a bitter substance, is applied to paper and then placed on the tongue. While non-tasters experience nothing, tasters detect a moderately bitter substance, while supertasters encounter intense bitterness. Having a bitter-sensitive allele on the TAS2R38 receptor gene predicts sensitivity to PROP.
The finely tuned tasting ability that comes with supertaster status is thought to be due, at least in part, to an increased number of fungiform papillae. These mushroom shaped papillae are located on the top surface of the tongue and concentrated towards the tip and edges. They house the taste buds (six on average) which allow us to distinguish the five tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. You can see fungiform papillae by applying blue food coloring to your tongue. The areas that remain unstained are the fungiform. A non-taster’s tongue (left) will appear dotted while a supertaster’s tongue (right) will appears tiled.
Supertaste as a predictor of diet and weight
PROP tasters have demonstrable differences in the perception of flavors. Evidence suggests that adult tasters are more sensitive to bitter taste and fattiness in food, and often show lower acceptance of foods that are high in these taste qualities. Tasters tend to give lower liking rating to strong, bitter foods like raw broccoli, grapefruit juice, coffee and dark chocolate. In one study performed with children (who are less likely to be swayed by food preferences that develop later in life) non-tasters consumed more vegetables, particularly bitter tasting vegetables, than did the taster children during a free-choice intake test. Being a non-taster may contribute to the development of vegetable acceptance and consumption patterns during early childhood.
Mean liking ratings (1 = dislike extremely; 5 = like extremely) in PROP nontaster () and PROP taster () children. Significant differences were found between the two groups (P < 0.05). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
While they may eat their veggies, non-tasters have higher reported liking of high-fat foods. Non-taster girls have a higher laboratory preference for whole milk. Ironically, when compared to tasters, they are less able to perceive the fat content in foods. In one study, non-tasters were less able to accurately identify the fat content of a 40% fat salad dressing, even though preference data showed they enjoyed the higher fat dressing more. The intake of bitter and high-fat foods is suspected to be the cause of the higher body weight. There is an inverse relationship between BMI and taster status, but only among overweight or obese individuals.
Such preferences should give pause to critics who dish out one-size fits all judgment.
Tasters have reported a greater perceived bitterness and irritation from alcohol. Some studies have found that non-tasters might have greater preference for alcohol, consume more alcoholic beverages and be at greater risk for alcoholism. Such preferences should give pause to critics who dish out one-size fits all judgment.
Should critics label their tastes?
According to Linda Bartoshuk, a Research Scientist and the Yale University of Medicine, the opinions of supertasters, who live in their own unique world of flavor sensations, tend to be of value only to other supertasters.
Gary Pickering, who has been studying the relationship between PROP sensitivity and wine appreciation at
The ideal solution might involve full disclosure of genetic predispositions, allowing consumers to match their palates with those of critics. On the Internet, with the recent proliferation of wine websites, webmasters are moving closer to this type of tailored commentary.
Traditional methods, like Corkd.com, allow users to rate wines on a scale of 1 - 100. Corkd has no way of determining how someone arrived at their rating. Bottlenotes uses a matchmaking model where each person ranks wines based on their own subjective tastes. But as Russ Jones remarks, “You are asking questions about the individual’s subjective reality, with no fixed subject which we can all agree upon. Do you like tart, do you like sweet, do you like crisp, do you like ripe?” As we have seen, genetic predispositions will impact taste preferences.
Bottlenotes matchmaking system relies on subjective tastes.
Only TasteVine asks individuals to taste and rate the same wines (they have selected 12 popular wines to try) - the software then uses this information to match responses to users with related preferences. According to the site, “To make good recommendations, we need to know two things: what you like and how you understand it. Two people may like a movie, but one thought it was funny and the other thought it was moving.” TasteVine uses feedback to find others on the web who react to wine in similar ways.
While we are far from having a complete understanding of the mechanisms of taste, we are making strides in pinpointing how individual differences impact our inclinations. Armed with this data, we are moving towards a world of customized critical thought and away from a one-size fits all mentality.