Are You a 'Supertaster'? Put Your Tastebuds to the Test

According to new research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, we humans have taste receptors located all over our bodies, from the tongue, to the gut, to the nose, to the brain.

Flavors are a combination of tastes and odors that travel to the backs of our mouths, triggering the nerve endings of taste receptors that send messages to the brain. In short, the tastes of a food first travel to the papillae of the taste buds on the tongue, where their flavors are received and perceived; then, the taste receptors in the nose further enhance taste perception. (This is why a sinus infection or head cold will mute the tasting ability of most people.)

Did you know that some of us are actually supertasters who have a higher density of supersensitive taste buds on our tongues?

A New Discovery: Supertasters

That’s right: It’s estimated that nearly 25 percent of the population are supertasters, and these people are able to sense taste with much greater intensity than normal. Not surprisingly, a high proportion of professional chefs are supertasters.

Supertasters are more likely than the average person to be offended by bitter-tasting foods, and they also tend to avoid dark-green cruciferous vegetables—veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and cabbage. They are highly sensitive to creamy and fatty foods, and are averse to the tastes of beer and hard liquors. On the other hand, supertasters prefer sweeter vegetables and fruits, as well as saltier foods.

This groundbreaking discovery opens the door for future dietitians and nutritionists to customize nutritional advice for the different palates of their clients.

As a rule, supertasters tend to be leaner than most individuals in the general public. Some studies also suggest that they are more likely to fend off bacterial sinus infections. On a negative note, supertasters have a heightened risk of developing colon cancer.

Put Your Tastebuds to the Test

One way to get control of your nutrition style and manage your weight is to measure how sensitive your own taste buds are. Scientists in a lab usually use a bitter synthetic compound called phenylthiocarbamide or 6-n-propylthiouracil (also known as PROP or PTC) to challenge the buds. Supertasters can readily taste PROP and they find it to be hyper-bitter; remarkably, non-supertasters can’t detect any bitterness there at all.

If you don’t happen to have a supply of PROP on hand, you can still test your sensitivity. In their best-selling book, You on a Diet, the author/physician team, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen, mention another testing method using only the artificial sweetener, saccharin.

I have modified this Roizen/Oz procedure for my own nutrition practice. Here’s what I tell my clients to do. First, take a very small sample of saccharin and place it on the extreme tip of your tongue. Now, concentrate on the very tip of your tongue and ask yourself: What do I taste?

  • If you taste sweetness only, then you are what is called an under-taster, and you are more likely to have a high tolerance and a heightened desire for fatty and salty foods. In some instances, you may be inclined to eat more sweets than the average person because your taste buds require a “bigger” taste in order to feel satiated.
  • If you taste both sweetness and bitterness, then you are an average taster. You have a normal number of taste buds on your tongue.
  • If you taste extreme bitterness, then you are a supertaster. You have a greater-than-average number of taste buds, as well as a heightened aversion to bitter and sour flavors. Fruits and vegetables that are tart or sour may not appeal to you.

What to Do Next

  • If you are an under-taster, you’ll need to remember when you are eating that your sense of taste is slightly underactive. With this in mind, you’ll be able to guard against your greater-than-average tendency to eat recreationally—that is, to eat at times when you're not really hungry or thirsty.
  • If you are an average taster, you should avoid external distractions during meals so that you can focus on making the best food choices and then consuming reasonably sized portions.
  • If you are a supertaster, be aware that your aversion to tart and savory foods might possibly limit your selections of vegetables and sour fruits, which happen to make up an important part of a healthy eating plan. And, knowing this about yourself, you’ll need to make an effort each day to eat at least three servings of mild, non-bitter vegetables that you like.

And Last…

No matter what your taste bud inventory is, remember:

  • Don’t skip meals.
  • Nourish yourself with balanced, wholesome meals.
  • Banish unhealthy snack foods from your home.
  • Eat healthy alternatives to the junk foods that you may be tempted to binge on.

©1996-2013, Johns Hopkins University. All rights reserved. Disclosure: The information provided here is compiled by The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine with editorial supervision by one or more of the members of the faculty of the School of Medicine pursuant to a license agreement with Yahoo! Inc. under which the School of Medicine and its faculty editors receive licensing fees and payment for services rendered within the scope of the License Agreement. Johns Hopkins subscribes to the HONcode principles of the Health on the Net Foundation.

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