Have you ever wondered why you’re drawn to some foods and repulsed by others? Supertasters, about 25% of the population, live in an amplified world of flavor that predisposes them to crave salt and reject bitterness. Taste researchers have classified this and two other kinds of tasters to reach a better understanding of the human palate.
It was once believed that all food preference was learned, but researchers have shown that variation in food preference is biological, and since people tend to eat what they crave, could be related to dietary disease. Yale Professor Linda Bartoshuk researched genetic variation in ability to taste and came up with these three categories of tasters:
Non-tasters, about 25% of the population, have fewer than average taste buds. They are called non-tasters because they are unable to detect the bitterness of a chemical called PROP (propylthiouracil), an ability that has been linked to food preference and body type. Non-tasters are thought to have appeared later in evolution.
Medium tasters are the middle 50%. They can detect PROP, but don’t have a strong aversion to its bitterness. Non- and medium-tasters are likely to try news foods, and can reap the benefits of a widely varied diet.
Supertasters have the most taste buds and report PROP to taste very strong, even revolting. These Technicolor palates experience heightened taste sensations and food textures that make them especially sensitive to all flavors.
On the down side, they tend to skip flavonoid-rich vegetables like kale, cabbage and broccoli for their intense bitterness. Distaste for bitter flavonoids in fruit and vegetables could be linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. Supertasters also tend to prefer salty foods, possibly because it counteracts the bitterness.
On the up side, small amounts of sugar and fat go a long way, making it easy to say no to rich desserts. They also tend to dislike coffee, cigarettes and alcohol for their heightened perception of acids and irritants. People from Asia, Africa and South America are more likely to be supertasters. Women are also more likely to have the supertaster gene, possibly because the sensitivity helps protect the fetus from poisons during pregnancy.
You may already know from the descriptions what kind of taster you are. In case there’s any doubt you can take this Cornell survey or do the food color test and count the papilla (round bumps that house the taste buds) in the mirror. Although the variation is partly in the genes, it’s also true that you can learn to like foods over time, as suggested by the phenomena of “acquired tastes.”
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