Picky Picky
My life as a supertaster

All cruciferous vegetables contain high levels of chemical compounds called glucosinolates. Most people do not taste them at all — but to supertasters they read extremely bitter and more than a little farty, too. Photo stolen from BBC.

From my earliest memories I have been confounded by the popularity of many common foods, as in my experience they are so intensely flavorful that I absolutely cannot imagine voluntarily putting them into my mouth. It’s not merely about whether the flavor profile of a given dish is to my liking — it’s a matter of sheer magnitude. And yet I look around and see everybody around me happily wolfing the stuff down and asking for seconds.

Plain old yellow mustard, for example, is one of the most common condiments in use in modern-day America. Most people seem to like it and a very vocal subgroup love the stuff. Pickles, too, and by that I mean everything pickled. Broccoli and all its stank brethren. Onions everywhere. Vinegar as a dressing. Kale smoothies. IPAs and other highly-hopped beers. Black coffee. Jalapeño peppers. Freaking deviled eggs! These and many other everyday foods and drinks register as anodyne to the majority — and yet to me all are intolerably overstimulating. I am just as averse to putting these things in my mouth as I am to staring into the sun with my bare eyes, or exposing my naked eardrums to the roar of a jet engine at close proximity.

I’m not looking to put my nose here either, for that matter.

For this I have spent my entire life being ridiculed, and worse. My stepfather was convinced he could force my tastes to change with a little effort, and on one occasion shoved a big forkful of potato salad into my mouth and then beat me when I gagged and heaved against the unholy cacophony I couldn’t bring myself to swallow despite my best effort. He was an extreme outlier, of course; most people were content to merely mock me, especially as I grew old enough to be seen as someone whose tastes should have “matured” by then.

This used to hurt my feelings; after all none of us are any more in control of how we perceive taste as we are the color of our eyes or our blood type. And the smug superiority of so many of the people who have shamed me for my palate was bewildering as well; what the hell is so great about not being able to enjoy a hot dog that hasn’t been completely smothered in loud toppings? Don’t you people like the taste of beef? How am I the weird one?

I see this as a crime against hot dogs, personally.

I learned to cook as a child, partly because there were no adults around a lot of the time — but also in part because I didn’t like the dishes the grown-ups in my life cooked, or the way they cooked them. This actually would serve me well later in life, as despite my limited palate, I truly love good food, and I take great pleaure in preparing it for myself and others.

And then one day in the ’90s I was chatting with a nutritionist who happened to come into the sign shop where I worked to have some placards made for her booth at a health fair. I don’t know how it came up but I mentioned my aversion to certain vegetables, which provoked her to ask me a couple follow-up questions about my food preferences.

“It sounds like you might be a supertaster,” she said.

I had never heard of such a thing, and told her so.

“Stick out your tongue,” she said, leaning in a little and squinting. I did as she said and she looked at my tongue close for just a second. “Hmmm… Well, it’s hard to tell without staining, but it looks like you just might have an overabundance of papillae.”

“What now?”

“Taste buds. Supertasters are people who have extra taste buds — sometimes twice as many as average — and those taste buds are also more sensitive to certain flavor compounds, especially bitter ones.”

Photo stolen from Association for Biology Laboratory Education.

At that moment it was like a light went on. All those years I had spent feeling like I was substandard or defective or immature because I didn’t like sauerkraut? Not my fault! Well, potentially, at least…

“How do I find out for sure?” I asked.

“Well, you can stain your tongue blue and it makes it easier to count the papillae,” she replied. “Also there is a chemical you can buy, you just drop it on your tongue and see if you taste it or not. Most people don’t.”

I thanked her for this revelation, and when I went home from work that afternoon, I fired up my old 233MHz Pentium III desktop PC, dialed me up some very slow internet, and started looking for information on supertasters.

This was how we rolled back then. It was the Wild West.

To my frustration, there wasn’t much to find on the World Wide Web circa 1997. When my girlfriend came home I told her excitedly about what the nutritionist had told me, and I was stunned and a little hurt when she rolled her eyes and snorted.

“Well, I’m happy you finally have an excuse, anyway” she said dismissively.

It stuck in my craw but I still felt a little vindicated.

It would be some time before I found out much more, but over the years since then a lot of research on the subject of supertasters has been carried out, and the phenomenon is better understood now than ever before.

The formal study of varied taste perception in humans can be said to begin, in a sense, in 1931, when DuPont chemist Arthur Fox figured out that only some people could taste the organosulfur compound phenylthiocarbamide (PTC). Fox partnered with noted geneticist Albert Blakeslee to study this, and together the two determined that ability to taste PTC is genetically determined. In fact, for a time testing for PTC sensitivity was even used as a method to help establish paternity in contested cases.

“If this don’t taste bad, you ain’t the dad.”

A generation later, the legendary psychedelics researcher Roland Fischer drew the first connections between this taste sensitivity to PTC (and a related chemical, 6-n-propylthiouracil, aka PROP) to the real-life food preferences, body weight and overall health of people who have it.

But the real conversation didn’t begin until the early 1980s, with experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk‘s career-long deep dive into the study of taste perception. Bartoshuk, who was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the National Academy of Sciences for her lifelong work untangling the mechanics of the sensory perception of foods, was really the first to lay out the phenomenon as a quantifiable condition, coining the term “supertaster” in a 1991 paper. It is now thought that about 25% of people experience some degree of supertasterism, about 50% are “normal” tasters — and another 25% are “non-tasters,” people who do not experience food flavors strongly across the board. (I guess that’s your Chicago dog crowd.)

Supertasters can be divided further into multiple subgroups, some of which find fats distasteful (the skinny ones) and some of which strongly favor fatty foods (me). There are degrees to the flavor sensitivity, too, and in many cases with age the aversion to bitterness fades to a degree. Supertasters are also more likely to have other related food aversions that don’t spring simply from taste. Texture, aroma and even environmental conditions experienced while eating may play a role in whether a food is perceived as delicious or repulsive by the affected individual.

So how did this trait develop in humans, anyway? The jury is still out, but it is suspected to have arisen from evolutionary advantage — as many poisonous plants employ markedly bitter flavor as a defense mechanism, protecting them from being eaten in nature. It also should be noted that the sensitivity to bitterness is only a convenient marker for the condition, as supertasters routinely experience elevated levels of taste sensation across the entire flavor spectrum, including sweet, sour, salty and umami, as well. How this all relates to the bigger syndrome of food aversions is still largely unknown.

…in which Ringo is forced to be taste tester for his tribe…

Some time in the 2000s I finally got the chance to try a PTC test strip. For the first second I tasted nothing, and I was ready to be disappointed — after all I was sure I had to be a supertaster, it explained everything! But then there it was, not overwhelming but sort of metallic and definitely bitter, like chewing up an aspirin and touching a weak nine-volt battery to the tongue at the same time. It didn’t change anything in me to know for sure — but it was still somehow a relief.

Ironically the one person who ever seemed excited to learn I was a supertaster was a chef friend of mine, who misunderstood the premise altogether. She had it in mind that I would be the perfect judge to assist in fine-tuning a new recipe, what with my superhuman powers of flavor discernment. It was difficult to explain to her that the majority of her menu was actually entirely inedible to me, and that I would be just about the worst person she knew to help with such a task. I appreciated the support though.

In our modern day we are finally becoming more understanding and sensitive as a society when it comes to recognizing the many forms of neurodiversity that are part of the human experience, and even realizing some of the advantages they may afford. A 2021 study revealed supertasters to show stronger natural immunity to COVID-19, an illness everyone in my family contracted during the pandemic — except me. Who knows what other genetic bonuses may be connected?

It is my hope that as we understand more about the mysteries of what makes each of us individual humans, we can leave behind being shitty to one another over our inborn differences — including what we like and don’t like to eat.

Until then, please hold the mustard. And crank this up!

#MicDrop

About Michael Carmody

Michael Carmody is a Gen-X musician living and working on the Great Plains.

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