Searching for the supertasters among us
October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."
If you are of a certain age, you remember the series of TV commercial featuring Charlie the Tuna, the cartoon mascot of StarKist Tuna.
Charlie was a hipster. He wore a beret and glasses and proclaimed his "good taste" because he wanted to be captured by StarKist. It never happened. The tag, which became something of a national catchphrase, was "Sorry, Charlie," and the explanation followed that StarKist "doesn't want tuna with good taste, but tuna that tastes good" -- or something to that effect.
I thought about Charlie the Tuna last week. Whether we're talking about fashion, decorating, music, bands or TV shows, virtually everyone I know thinks -- just like Charlie -- that they have good taste.
And, as I discovered during Dining Month, a lot of people think they're supertasters, too.
What is a supertaster?
We could get bogged down in a bunch of biological mumbo-jumbo, but it boils down to this: a supertaster is a person who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than the average person.
The phrase was coined by Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of otolaryngology and psychology at the Yale School of Medicine who is now at the University of Florida. Working on taste research begun six decades earlier by Arthur L. Fox, a scientist for DuPont, Bartoshuk discovered that some people have denser concentrations of fungiform papillae, the structures at the end of the tongue that house taste buds, than other people.
She called them "supertasters," replacing the previous (and unofficial) label that had been around for decades -- "fussy eaters."
OK, that was too easy.
Given their heightened sensitivity, supertasters experience more profound reactions to certain types of food. If you don't like coffee, grapefruit, broccoli or other vegetables, you might be a supertaster.
Then again, you may not.
Just as people with sensitive hearing aren't always great musicians or even music critics, picky eaters aren't necessarily supertasters and vice versa.
Experts determined that roughly 25 percent of people are supertasters, while 50 percent are "medium tasters" and 25 percent are "nontasters." Women are more likely to be supertasters than men, while people of African and Asian descent are more likely to have the trait than people of European backgrounds.
Intrigued by the idea, not to mention the catchy song "John Lee Supertaster" by They Might Be Giants, we decided to do a little research in the OnMilwaukee.com editorial office.
We went to supertastertest.com and ordered a couple of test kits. They cost $4.95 for two tests, and it couldn't be easier. Basically, each test contains two strips of paper treated with a non-toxic chemical. You place a strip on your tongue for a few seconds. If it tastes bland or has no taste, you are likely a nontaster. If it's slightly bitter, you're a taster. If you find it so vile you can hardly stand it, well, then you're a supertaster.
We had six writers take the test. Based on the ballpark odds, we figured that one of us was going to be a supertaster. A couple subjects were certain it would be them.
Alas, four of the six in our test did not react. Andy Tarnoff and I were the only ones to taste mild bitterness on the paper, which made us tasters.
"For some reason, I expected to be a 'super taster,' and was a little disappointed that I'm just a 'taster,'" Tarnoff said. "I was hoping that science would explain why I'm such a picky eater, why I can taste sublime ingredients and why I can't stand grapefruit."
The test made me think about my own status. I've never liked coffee or grapefruit. I like a little heat in my sauces and condiments, but I've never been compulsive about using salt and pepper to season bland food.
I can usually taste different spices in dishes, but I don't consider my palate to be super-sensitive. Interestingly, research shows that many chefs are merely tasters and not supertasters.
If you don't want to spend the $4.95 for a test, here is a cheaper alternative. Put some blue food coloring on your tongue and see how many pink taste buds you can count within a 7mm circle. Normal tasters will count between 15 and 35. Nontasters will have about a dozen or fewer. Supertasters will see about 30 or 35.
A recent episode of the "Dr. Oz Show" addressed the subject of supertasters. Dr. Oz surmised that people who aren't sensitive to tastes may eat more in an attempt to challenge their taste buds. Nontasters prefer sweeter foods and may also be impacted less by alcohol (a fact that made two-thirds of the editorial staff chuckle). Supertasters are sometimes thinner, but also more likely to develop cancer.
If you spend a lot of time around children, you'll often see that foods that they liked as a 4-year-old seem repulsive to the same child four years later.
"My taste buds changed," my daughter explained to me one day, matter of factly.
That can be true. Taste buds can be "educated," in wine tasting classes or by repetition. A lot of bitter-averse people develop love of coffee or gin and tonics. Some people even learn to like a little heat in their Bloody Mary or Tabasco on their scrambled eggs.
Our morning of supertaster testing wasn't groundbreaking, but it made for some fun conversation and introspection.
"I plan on using my status as a taster whenever I choose to complain about food -- which is often," Tarnoff said. "It's not my fault I don't want to eat your cooking, dear. It's my taste buds."
Now that we've whet your appetite, check out the video from "They Might Be Giants."
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