The science of supertasting

Published by adviser, Author: Kevin Squires, Date: September 18, 2014

RSlogoFor all my life, I have carried a reputation as a picky eater, needing special accommodations or considerations in choosing where to go or what to have for dinner and always feeling like a burden to my friends and family. Recently, I discovered that I likely have science to blame to my selectivity of foods as I believe myself to be a supertaster. This is not an excuse to be picky, rather an explanation

Everyone has similar tastes that the taste buds on their tongue can detect – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (this is kind of like the rich, flavorful sensation you experience with dark chocolate or many times in sauces with Asian-influences; it’s also the name of a dining location in Weisenfluh – now you know why!). 

The differences in taste are in exactly how those taste buds and sense of smell interact with one another and work with our brains to perceive quality of taste. One factor is how many taste buds an individual has. Ever wonder why spicy food burns your mouth even when it’s cool to the touch? Chemicals in the food are detected by taste buds that are actually sending a signal to the brain with the same message as something hot might. The brain then translates the signal as pain. 

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could somehow make sour foods taste sweet? There’s actually a berry native to West Africa called miracle fruit, or Synsepalum dulcificum, that lets us do this. In the fruit is this protein called miraculin that temporarily makes your taste buds that detect sweet flavors and tell the brain a food is sweet activate when you’re actually tasting sour foods. I’ve experienced this a few times and noticed lemons tasting like lemonade and the tart of Sweet-tarts gone entirely. It’s very cool if you ever get the chance to do it. 

But what about these supertasters, how does that work? Supertasters often have more taste buds than an average person, and have one or two dominant alleles for the gene TAS2R28 which basically means they are more sensitive to subtleties others may not notice in foods. The more taste buds, the more taste detected. 

Scientists at Yale University found in a study that supertasters make up about 35 percent of all women and 15 percent of all men. Scientific American describes an easy test on their website to find out if you want to find out if you’re one of these supertasters or you may have even taken one in a biology course at some point in your life.

If you’re one of these women or men, like me, that is a supertaster, you’re probably a picky eater too. For about two years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with this- how to stop being a burden and start feeling normal at a restaurant without ordering the chicken tenders and fries or the pizza. 

One thing that has really helped this endeavor is to try at least one new food every month with openness to making it a part of my diet. This way, there’s a tangible, reasonable goal I can hold myself to. It isn’t an attempt to change my eating habits over night, but it makes real progress.

With that, I’m not afraid to say if something is not good. I can tell pretty quickly if I love something or hate it. I was surprised to find I love salads, but dressing just overwhelms my taste buds (except Olive Garden’s dressing…actually pretty much everything at Olive Garden is worth trying. That’s my next bit of advice- go to Olive Garden.) 

I taste in small bites, and then decide if I want to keep going. Great food takes different flavors into consideration to create perfect combinations of tastes, but sometimes it misses the mark. I’ll often get orders on the side so that I can decide for myself what goes well together.   

I haven’t abandoned chicken tenders and pizza, but it’s nice to have more options and there have been so many fantastic foods I’ve been missing out on. So try a new food this month, every month or as often as you feel comfortable. You might find something you never thought you’d discover.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here