The Science of Super Tasters

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This is the latest post in our series, Now I Know – Liquid Edition by Dan Lewis, author of Now I Know a popular online newsletter.

By Dan Lewis

Superman has x-ray vision. Daredevil can’t see, but has incredibly strong hearing. And various other superheroes have senses which are only the work of fantasy and science fiction. While real people have strengths and weaknesses, none of us have super senses, right?

Wrong! Some of us are what’s known as “supertasters.”

There are a bunch of pink-ish bumps on our tongues called papillae, which contain our taste buds. If you’re a typical person and have an average number of papillae, you probably have about 10,000 taste buds, give or take. But we’re not all average, of course, and some people have a lot more papillae than others, perhaps double or triple the amount. That means they have extra taste buds, and, as Scientific American explains, means that the flavor of many foods are much stronger than they would be for a typical, average person. This makes sense – more sensors often means more sensations detected.

Like any other “superpower,” having a heightened sense of taste comes with some advantages. The Wall Street Journal noted that “a relatively high proportion of professional chefs are supertasters,” likely because those with more taste buds are able to better identify the otherwise subtle differences in prepared meals that can turn delicious into disaster and vice versa. And a Yale University study (via WineFolly.com) suggests that supertasters are less prone to being obese, because any flavor-related cravings are more readily satisfied than “regular” people would be. Basically, if you have a sweet tooth, so to speak, it’s easier to please if you are more receptive to detecting sweetness.

But it’s not all sweetness and yumminess – tastes come in sour, bitter, and biting varieties as well. In these cases having so many taste receptors comes with a downside, as those flavors often are best in small doses – and for supertasters, there’s no such thing as a small burst of flavor. So supertasters tend to avoid these foods. And unfortunately, the list of foods which are often unpalatable to supertasters include some very healthy alternatives – kale, grapefruit, broccoli, and spinach are cited as too bitter or sour. (Per one study cited by the Journal, supertasters tend to avoid leafy greens for that reason.) And others avoid less nutritious foods like dark chocolate and even ice cream.

If, after reading this, you may think you’re a supertaster – maybe you don’t like ice cream and can’t stand the thought of Brussel sprouts? – don’t worry! You’re not all that weird. Approximately 25% of the population are supertasters, according to a BBC report. And there’s a quasi-scientific way to see if you’re one of them, as outlined in another BBC article. You’ll need a hole punch, some blue food dye, and a magnifying glass. You should probably bring a friend along, because you’re going to dye your tongue blue (temporarily, don’t worry) and you’ll need someone to look at your tongue to count the papillae. If you have more than 30 in the hole punch-sized area, you’re probably a supertaster.
And either way, you’ll probably want something tasty to drink afterward. Maybe try the Sumatra Dragonfruit to start?

Dan Lewis is the author of the wildly popular daily newsletter Now I Know, which shares something interesting every day.

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